HIGH wind alert: what appears to be a hurricane has unexpectedly blown into Brooklyn, where it is likely to rage throughout much of the month of March. Though it has thus far confined its activity to a small area — the stage of the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music — it is inflicting considerable havoc there. Pillow cushions, curtains, furniture covers, bunches of flowers and even small actresses are tirelessly picked up and tossed about. Hurricane Hedda is the name of this disruptive force of nature. And as generated by Cate Blanchett, the Oscar-winning movie star, it is unlike any other squall you might have encountered.
In the title role of the Sydney Theater Company’s visiting production of Ibsen’s "Hedda Gabler," which runs through March 26 in an appropriately tempestuous new adaptation by Andrew Upton, Ms. Blanchett is giving roughly a dozen of the liveliest performances to be seen this year, all at the same time.
Actually, a mere one or two at this level of intensity would have been enough. Then again, how often do you get to watch an actress of such virtuosity pulling out every stop of her instrument and then some? Playing Ibsen’s destructively dissatisfied heroine, Ms. Blanchett is a moody perpetual motion machine, twirling among several centuries’ worth of acting styles. She variously brings to mind the deep-toned grandeur of a Bernhardt or Duse, the refined screwball stylings of Katharine Hepburn (whom Ms. Blanchett played on screen in her Oscar-winning turn in "The Aviator") and a very contemporary self-satirizing malcontent. All of which would be merely entertaining or irritating — depending upon your tolerance level — except for the instances of genuine, revelatory brilliance that suddenly sear the air like a camera flash.
Scholars who insist upon Hedda as the first great neurotic of the modern theater have apparently gotten it wrong. The evidence in this version, directed by Robyn Nevin, is that it’s a multiple personality disorder, underscored by hyperkinesis, we’re dealing with. No wonder that everyone, audience included, seems so exhausted by the show’s end. Well, except Ms. Blanchett. She looks as if she’s still up for a few sprints across the Brooklyn Bridge.
The line on performers who are identified mostly with the big screen is that they are guaranteed to shrink once you plop them on a stage, without the magnifying benefits of the camera and the mistake-erasing magic of the editing room. Say what you like about Ms. Blanchett’s Hedda, but you can’t call it small or technically unaccomplished. There’s not a word or gesture, however seemingly incidental, that doesn’t register large here. It’s just that they come in so darn many shapes and sizes.
Ms. Blanchett’s multimannered interpretation — meant to convey the desperation of a woman doing everything she can to fight off boredom and social entrapment — is of a piece with Ms. Nevin’s overall mise-en-scène. Fiona Crombie’s sumptuously detailed set and Kristian Fredrikson’s gorgeous costumes might lead you to expect a conventional period piece. And the ominous, military-flavored mood music (by Alan John) promises the old-fashioned pleasures of tragedy tonight.
But it soon becomes evident that this production is possessed by the restlessness of artists determined to shake the dust off a familiar classic by applying the equivalent of a motorized rug beater. Like Ms. Blanchett’s central performance, the show seems to be deconstructing itself as it hurries along. And hurry it does. Hedda may be the most manic creature onstage, constantly rearranging the sofa cushions and tossing flowers at whim, but she is by no means the only one.
Everybody has a case of the fidgets — even pompous old Jorgen Tesman (Anthony Weigh), Hedda’s scholarly stick of a husband, and the worldly, smug Judge Brack (Hugo Weaving). The show is punctuated throughout by the percussion of fingers drumming on glasses and watch cases. The Tesmans’ maid (Annie Byron) never walks through a room when she can barrel through it.
Perversely, only the doomed, brilliant Ejlert Lovborg (Aden Young), Hedda’s illicit love interest, gives off the stolidity one traditionally associates with the claustrophobic world of "Hedda Gabler." The naïve, trusting Thea Elvsted (Justine Clarke), Hedda’s former schoolmate and unwitting nemesis, sheds her customary bovine mien to become a wild-haired, hysterics-prone bohemian. Tesman’s doting Aunt Julle (Julie Hamilton) is less the usual study in passive aggression than an openly aggressive busybody.
They can all be relied upon to speak spasmodically, often in dialogue that overlaps and crashes. This means that Hedda seems to be trying less to define herself against a stagnant, suffocating environment than to compete to be the wildest of them all. It’s a land of individual egos in overdrive, which connect only through collision.
When a show moves this quickly, it is hard to fasten onto individual supporting performances. But I did glimpse a promisingly novel and insightful take on Tesman’s relationship with his wife, as provided by Mr. Weigh, who plays the character with an intriguing irritability. In the first scene in particular, as Hedda makes fun of the various floral tributes sent to the couple at their new home, you get a surprising whiff of marital complicity. You sense that she amuses him and that she enjoys knowing that she does.
At least I think that was what I sensed. Because no sooner had that impression registered than a wave of other, contradictory ones succeeded it. To be frank, I remember most of the production as one gleaming, writhing blur. But that doesn’t include Ms. Blanchett, who is so compellingly watchable that at times she might be doing a one-woman show.
This feeling is underscored by her tendency to step to the edge of the stage when chords of loneliness or unquenchable spiritual hunger are struck in Hedda. Ms. Blanchett turns her pale, luminous, ravishing face onto the audience like a spotlight, and her voice drops to subterranean levels. This is Hedda as she might have been interpreted by a queen of 19th-century melodrama, and while enjoyable, it’s a bit bogus.
Then there are moments that are drawn with such quirky and startlingly perceptive immediacy that you feel that Ms. Blanchett could be the greatest Hedda of all time. In the first scene, for example, when it dawns on Hedda that Auntie Julle suspects she is pregnant, Ms. Blanchett recoils just a fraction and her face is briefly but damningly shadowed by a look of entrapment. That image will haunt me for years, as will that of this Hedda clasping her hand over her mouth, her eyes wan and red, as she realizes how wrong her idealistic schemes have gone. And just watch her abject, lost expression as Judge Brack paws her surreptitiously and proprietarily toward the play’s end.
Anthony Minghella, who directed Ms. Blanchett in her small but stunning role in the film "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999), has gone on record with his belief that she can do absolutely anything as an actress. This performance confirms his trust, in a way. Even allowing for this production’s take on its heroine as a mighty swirl of contradictions, Ms. Blanchett still provides us with enough material for several complete Hedda Gablers. It’s up to you to piece together, in the editing room of your mind, the Hedda of your dreams.
By Henrik Ibsen; adapted by Andrew Upton. Directed by Robyn Nevin; sets by Fiona Crombie; costumes by Kristian Fredrikson; lighting by Nick Schlieper; music composed by Alan John; sound system designer, Paul Charlier; assistant light designer, Chris Twyman; literal translator, Marit Andersen; artistic associate, Tom Wright. Sydney Theater Company. Presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Alan H. Fishman, chairman; William I. Campbell, vice chairman; Karen Brooks Hopkins, president; Joseph V. Melillo, executive producer. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene; (718) 636-4100. Through March 26. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.
WITH: Cate Blanchett (Hedda Gabler), Annie Byron (Berte), Justine Clarke (Thea Elvsted), Julie Hamilton (Julle Tesman), Hugo Weaving (Judge Brack), Anthony Weigh (Jorgen Tesman) and Aden Young (Ejlert Lovborg).