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Hedda Gabler
by Rob Kendt

©2006 Richard Termine
Cate Blanchett in Hedda Gabler
A star vehicle just pulled into the loading dock at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, looking as sumptuous and severe as its choice cargo, the willowy blond tigress Cate Blanchett. It doesn't move as well as she does, though. In the lead role of Henrik Ibsen's bitter pill of a play, Hedda Gabler, Blanchett swoops and fusses sinuously about Fiona Crombie's forbiddingly tall set, which is dominated by a chimney rising to the rafters and a trellis letting in the wintry glare of Nick Schlieper's lights. But the production, an import from the Sydney Theatre Company, seems positively cowed not only by the set but by Blanchett's own near-blinding wattage.

Director Robyn Nevin could have tamped down her leading lady's klieg-light intensity a bit. Instead this production gives us a Hedda who's a scenery gobbler--a brittle brat with a low, mocking voice edging occasionally into a snarl and a self-dramatizing, restless fidget that is always, persistently, the center of attention. In one scene, what sounds for all the world like a beeping smoke alarm in the theater turns out to be the lady of the house herself, tapping at her glass in irritation that a subject besides herself has been taken up. "Hedda dearest," the saturnine Judge Brack (Hugo Weaving) addresses her at one point, in Andrew Upton's terse, frank adaptation. He couldn't be more on the mark. It is with some relief that we learn that this scheming demon has no interest in childbearing.

What this Hedda does have an interest in is harder to fathom. The play's mystery has always been why this willful, attractive young general's daughter would hitch her wagon to the absurdly dull, meek, asexual academic, Tesman. As played here by Anthony Weigh, who has a Dylan Baker-ish pathos but is so extravagantly diffident and dweeby it seems almost cruel to look at him, Tesman is an even less likely match for this hellion Hedda. Indeed, given her icy vehemence and open, impudent sarcasm, a fresh mystery emerges: Why does anyone trust her an inch? Why do sensitive and vulnerable souls--not only poor Tesman but the dissipated intellectual Lovborg (Aden Young) and his simpering, disheveled admirer Thea (Justine Clarke)--keep turning to this preening cobra for a sympathetic ear? This Hedda's gleeful malevolence is nearly enough to excite the reflexes of melodrama: No, don't leave her alone with him! He's not going to entrust her with that! You can't turn your back on her for a minute!

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There's great guilty pleasure in this approach, of course; and indisputable entertainment value in watching Blanchett make a lip-smacking meal of the part. But it does serious violence to the play, delicate house of cards that it is, to let its lead drag it behind her like the train of a gown (Kristian Fredrikson's shimmering costumes, it seems fitting to mention here, are positively regal). It
©2006 Richard Termine
Hugo Weaving & Cate Blanchett in Hedda Gabler
doesn't help that as the ostensible rakish heartthrob Lovborg, Young is a phlegmatic, shadowy presence, or that as Tesman's insufferable aunt, Julie Hamilton is all whinnying bluster. Among the others paddling valiantly in the star's wake, the quavery Clarke makes the strongest impression, meeting her nemesis with an endearing artlessness. Weigh's Tesman keeps his head down and acquires something close to dignity by show's end, while Weaving's judge, his jowls buried in a thatchy beard, is such a serpentine, insinuating figure, pivoting on one toe or leaning on his cane, that he seems never to be standing up straight.

The effect of the cast's imbalance, oddly, is that we're almost relieved by Ibsen's infamously abrupt ending, even if it's drawn out here to a deliberate slow-mo, as if viewed underwater, and even though it puts in full view an action which is typically only overheard just offstage. It's only fitting after all her self-centered psychodrama that this Hedda would flame out in a sunburst spotlight.

Hedda Gabler
By Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Robyn Nevin
BAM's Harvey Theatre

Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 3/2/2006 6:20:00 PM


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