The Sydney Morning Herald
February 28, 2006
New Yorkers have snapped up seats for the Australian production, writes Sharon Verghis.
Last week, Cate Blanchett’s pale face was New York’s wallpaper, peering out from newsstands, showbills, posters and magazines in a wordless one-woman publicity juggernaut for the Sydney Theatre Company.
At the Harvey Theatre tomorrow, she will take to the stage for the American debut of the company’s acclaimed Hedda Gabler, reprising her sublime 2004 depiction of Ibsen’s slippery, fiendish heroine in a benefit show that will kick off the spring season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Blanchett, whether she likes it or not, is box-office gold, and the primary reason why American audiences have been rushing to funnel their greenbacks into the academy’s coffers. The opening night on Thursday, Sydney time, is almost sold out, and more than 90 per cent of seats have been snapped up for the production’s run of 28 performances. There’s a palpable curiosity about what the company will deliver. Australians tackling a Norwegian classic? It has been a lively talking point.
For the woman in the director’s seat, Robyn Nevin, there is plenty to negotiate: not just the challenge of restaging an acclaimed work 18 months or so after its Sydney debut, but the weight of expectation that an Ibsen staging attracts.
The work has a long American history: Ibsen’s sinister heroine, the original desperate housewife, was brought to malignant life by an American actress living in London, Elizabeth Robins, in the first staging in English of the play in London in 1891. The Hedda tradition has flourished since on the New York stage, where it made its American debut, and in the early years the rollcall of famous Heddas included Minnie Maddern Fiske, Alla Nazimova and Eleanore Duse.
The tradition has continued with stellar performances from the likes of the late Anne Meacham in her Obie-winning performance in 1961, to Dianne Wiest with the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1981. Standout performances in recent years include Kate Burton’s starring turn in Jon Robin Baitz’s version, and Elizabeth Marvel’s award-winning tilt at the role in Dutchman Ivo Van Hove’s radical interpretation for the New York Theatre Workshop. It’s a venerable history, with each new staging attracting considerable attention.
Nevin seems unfazed, but all who take on Hedda get noticed for good or bad. Van Hove’s version was alternately hailed and rubbished for some of its more radical flourishes, including scenes of Hedda barefoot, talking with her face to the wall, and smashing vases (one particularly unimpressed critic branded it a "headless chicken and an offence against good taste, Ibsen and intelligence".
Of the Sydney Theatre Company’s version, Nevin says: "It’s certainly not radical, but what stops it from being conservative is [Andrew Upton’s] adaptation, which is very contemporary."
As for Hedda, Blanchett has not tampered too much with her original interpretation of the role, Nevin says. "It’s been subtle changes, subtle differences. If anything, perhaps she’s made Hedda even more wicked."
The biggest challenge was adapting the original choreography to a bigger stage. Much bigger. The Brooklyn Academy’s 850-seat Harvey Theatre makes the 350-seat Wharf I venue look like a sardine can. Nevin and the production designer, Fiona Crombie, went to New York last year to inspect the Harvey stage so Crombie could do some redesigning. The company had its first look at the re-scaled stage during their technical rehearsal late last week and immediately felt at ease with the new design, she says.
The other challenge was to go back and rediscover roles fine-tuned and polished 18 months ago."It wasn’t easy," Nevin says. "The music [of the performance] had to be broken down and started again."
That Hedda’s story is being done by an Australian company has fuelled interest. There has been a certain bemusement from observers about what is seen as an unlikely marriage of rough-and-ready antipodean culture and a classic of Norwegian literature. Nevin says: "For a New York audience, it will be interesting. They’re used to seeing the European classics being brought over from Europe, done in English or [in their original language] but they haven’t heard [them] being done in an Australian voice."