Friday, 11 July 2014

Hedda Gabler, Belvoir

The Belvoir method of reinvigorating the classics, giving them a fresh lick of paint and contemporising their outlook, is not universally popular. And, to be fair, it is not a universal panacea - while keeping it contemporary can be a way to let the cast and audience into the production, the director is still responsible for keeping the show lively and engaging.

Unfortunately, Adena Jacobs' production of "Hedda Gabler" fails this in the opening five minutes. She's way too fond of her own stage images (long, silent scenes before the dialogue of Ibsen's play begins, breaking up between scenes), and her stage pictures just aren't fascinating enough to stare at for ages to reward the length of time we're left to examine them. The pace of the play (and this is a substantially cut text - 90 minutes long in total) never really recovers from this particular directorial self-indulgence.

The where and when is also quite messy in some of the other details. Why does the car have American number plates? Jacobs' program note suggests that it's about the American dream, but ... frankly, a bored trophy wife like Hedda feels just at home on the north shore of Sydney as she does in California, and the choice not to use American accents means that any American gesture is minor.

Ibsen's drama does peek through and there are redeeming moments here and there. Ash Flanders' Hedda does reflect a couple of the angles of Hedda - a ridiculously rich role, simultaneously a wild monster of a woman and a wimp, whose fantasies of conquest and destruction are brought flat by her decision to make a comfortable marriage to a mediocre academic. He plays the role distinctly as a female (including an impressive tuck during his nude scene) but there is a point at which his portrayal of Hedda's boredom with life does read as distinctly boring in itself - though part of this is a production problem, and part of this is Jacob's somewhat clunky translation.

As for the rest of the cast, Marcus Graham's Brack comes across best - it's when he's working his way around Hedda and insinuating himself into her life that the show really comes to best advantage. There's a delightfully congenially-predatory quality that Graham brings to the character that keeps him endlessly watchable. Oscar Redding's Lovborg is suitably intense and mercurial, Anna Huston's Thea keeps the character from being too much the easy-victim, and Tim Walter's Tesman keeps the character as he should be, a friendly, studious but not particularly interesting man (I've seen Hedda's suffer from Tesman's who wanted to be interesting).  Lynette Curran is pretty much wasted as Aunt Julie with nothing to really get a handle on, and Branden Christine's Berthe is given one of the worst modernist cliches, the maid who is required to stare silently at the rest of the characters and silently judge them - no, it isn't an interesting thing to do with the maid characters in classical literature - they're small parts, stop trying to make them bear weight they're not meant to.

I appreciated the production in the sense that it gave me a chance to think about Ibsen's play. But I don't think it's a particularly good production of the material.

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