Stage Door Review

Hedda Gabler

Wednesday, June 5, 2024


by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Patrick Marber, directed by Molly Atkinson

Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford

May 30-September 28, 2024

Hedda: “For once to have power over another human life”

It isn’t unusual to find two productions of the same play by Shakespeare running simultaneously in Ontario. It is, however, quite unusual to find two productions of the same play by Ibsen running simultaneously in Ontario. Yet, that is exactly what is happening now until June 9. Coal Mine Theatre, one of the most vibrant theatre companies in Toronto, opened its production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler on May 9, which had been in previews since May 5. The Stratford Festival opened its production on May 30, which had been in previews since April 25. Both productions have their advantages and disadvantages. To get a full picture of Ibsen’s 1890 play and why it still so gripping, one ideally would see both productions.

A major factor that makes the two productions so different is that each theatre company is using a different adaptation. Coal Mine is using a new adaptation by Liisa Repo-Martell, whose recent adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya has proved so successful. Stratford is using the 2016 adaptation by famed British playwright and director Patrick Marber, whose best known play is Closer (1997). Marber’s adaptation was written specifically for use in the National Theatre’s production of the play directed by iconoclastic director Ivo van Hove. Van Hove is known for stripping classic plays down to their essence as he did with Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge in 2014. Van Hove wanted to set Ibsen’s play in the present in an empty, barely finished apartment. For that reason Marber removes all references to furniture in his adaptation and adds lines to explain why the house is empty. Clearly Marber and van Hove mean the empty house to be symbolic of the emptiness of Hedda’s marriage and how her house has become a prison.

This has led Molly Atkinson, director for the Stratford production, and its designer Lorenzo Savoini to strange decisions. They are presenting Hedda Gabler in Ibsen’s original period of 1890 but they have adopted Ivo van Hove’s notion of an empty house. Therefore, the entire elongated thrust of the Tom Patterson stage is bare with only one chaise longue for seating other than built-in seats around the fireplace upstage centre. (This is even emptier than van Hove’s set that had a sofa and several loose chairs.) The lack of seating makes Atkinson’s blocking rather unnatural. People either have to have long conversation while standing, or, if they are friendly enough, two can use the chaise longue. Rather too often, though, Atkinson has people converse while standing 20 feet apart.

What little set decoration there is is peculiar. The previous five productions of Hedda Gabler I have seen have followed Ibsen’s instructions that a large portrait of Hedda’s father, General Gabler, dominates the room. The portrait is key in providing a visual sign that Hedda thinks of herself as her father’s daughter rather than her husband’s wife. It is also like the sun in Racine’s Phèdre (1677), as the grandfather whose gaze the daughter can never escape.

In the Stratford version a large fireplace on the centre wall replaces the stove on a side wall in Ibsen. On the mantel is a box containing Hedda’s father’s duelling pistols, thus making a duel the main symbol of the play rather than the portrait. The problem, of course, is that no one would ever store two loaded pistols on the mantel directly above a roaring fire. Besides that, the pistols are meant to be Hedda’s private property and thus not on display.

The Stratford set-up is completely different from the Coal Mine production which follows Ibsen’s own description of the furniture-filled room which he imagined as the location for the action. Besides that, the Coal Mine Theatre has at most 120 seats, whereas the Tom Patterson Theatre has 600. The Stratford production can never achieve the intimacy that the Coal Mine production does. At Stratford what is meant to be Hedda’s living room, feels like a ballroom.

The other key aspect of Marber’s adaptation is that it is significantly shorter than Ibsen’s original. Repo-Martell sticks close to the original so that the running time of her text is 120 minutes. Marber’s, by contrast, runs only 95 minutes. Having seen the Coal Mine production first, I felt when watching the Stratford production that the action was whizzing by rather than unfolding with gradual inevitability as it does in Repo-Martell’s adaptation and indeed in Ibsen. Marber’s cutting affects all the characters except Hedda and Judge Brack. The result is that the other characters are not as full and the environment where Hedda lives is not as rich.

The primary reason to see the Stratford production are the magnificent portrayals of Hedda and Judge Brack by Sara Topham and Tom McCamus. Topham, who played a haughty Gwendolyn Fairfax at Stratford in 2009, is an expert in portraying imperious characters. From her first entrance, Topham makes Hedda proud and disdainful. We call tell from the start that anyone she doesn’t like who crosses her path will have to submit to disparagement. The only two she likes or feigns to like, Thea Elvsted and Eilert Lovborg, she plans to use in creating a drama for her own entertainment.

Topham conveys that the bored Hedda’s main occupation is game playing. Hedda says nothing authentic to anyone often simply to see how they will react. What makes Ibsen’s play so modern is that Ibsen shows that Hedda is partly a victim of her patrician background but mostly that she is a victim of the own world she has creating in manipulating people. What makes Hedda like Hamlet is that she is also conscious of the failure of her own projects. As she says, “Everything I touch turns to ashes”. Topham is able to convey all the level of Hedda’s knowledge and crippling self-awareness. For the first time I perceived the parallel between Nora of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Hedda. Nora finally slams the door on a world not of making. Hedda makes a final exit from a world that her own actions have made uninhabitable.

Tom McCamus is a very strong Judge Brack. Marber makes Brack even more obviously vicious than he is in Ibsen with the suggestion that he commands a harem of the bored wives of his acquaintances. From McCamus’s first entrance we sense that Brack views Hedda as his prize catch. McCamus’s Brack is insidious and oily and seems to target Hedda as his prey much as Hedda in only partial fun targets Brack with her pistol. McCamus is a master of tones of voice, seeming hearty one moment when speaking to Tesman, and threatening in another moment when speaking to Hedda. Marber’s adaptation portrays Ibsen’s play as a duel of strategy and will between Hedda and Brack. This is exciting in its own way, but it does de-emphasize the play’s other dimensions as represented by the other characters.

As Hedda’s husband, Jorgen Tesman, Gordon S. Miller shows the character as boyish and naïve, but unlike most actors in this role, he also shows that Tesman is sexually attracted to Hedda, even if she always repulses his attentions. In a curious move in Act 1, Atkinson has Tesman put his hand on Hedda’s stomach after he notes she is “blooming”. This makes us think he knows Hedda is pregnant, when in fact he is meant to have no clue about this until Act 2.

All the other characters suffer from cuts Marber has made to their parts. Joella Crichton is an ardent Thea Elvsted, but Chrichton seems to have difficulty in moving beyond merely worried to distraught as Thea should be when she hears about Lovborg’s fate. Brad Hodder, who has given many fine performances at Stratford, is a strangely lukewarm Lovborg. Hodder projects no intensity and makes it very hard to see how Hedda could have romanticized him for so long. After Judge Brack’s party, Lovborg is supposed to visit Hedda looking drunk and desperate, whereas Hodder, with only slightly mussed hair and a hurt lip, looks and acts neither.

It is a shame that Marber has cut the role Aunt Juliana down so radically. Bola Aiyeola has no chance to make the part even interesting let alone vital, even though Juliana’s statement that she will gladly care for the sick and dying should be emphasized as a major rebuff to Hedda’s notion that there is nothing to do.

The only advantage to the stark design Marber’s adaptation dictates is that it allows for one brilliant theatrical effect. When Tesman and Thea decide to try to reconstruct Lovborg’s manuscript, they spread the miscellaneous papers they have to collate all over the bare stage. Hedda may have thought she was burning Lovborg and Thea’s “child”, but now Thea and Hedda’s own husband seem to be populating the entire stage with Lovborg’s work. Atkinson has Hedda walk over the papers in the long blood-red gown as if to disturb or even erase the avid duo’s work. But she fails. Is setting up this one scene worth all the visual emptiness that has come before? I think not. Nor is Marber’s reshaping of Ibsen’s text into a battle between Hedda and Brack, with little attention to the others. Stratford last staged Hedda Gabler in 1970. Let’s hope that should the Festival stage it again, it chooses an adaptation that is truer to the original script.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Tom McCamus as Judge Brack and Sara Topham as Hedda Gabler; Sara Topham as Hedda Gabler; Brad Hodder as Eilert Lovborg and Gordon S. Miller as Jorgen Tesman (with Sara Topham as Hedda in background). © 2024 David Hou.

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