She sweeps onto the darkened stage before her story begins — a swirl of long bones and high concept, a wraith with a pale topknot and paler skin. She appears flinty but fragile, a danger to others, surely, and perhaps to herself.
Thus, even before Cate Blanchett makes her official entrance and U.S. stage debut in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of "Hedda Gabler" at BAM, this Hedda has already burned us with her presence in a parallel universe of the psyche. The stunning Australian actress — who earned an Oscar last year as Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator" and her annuity as a noble elf in "The Lord of the Rings" — is every bit as compelling in the translucent flesh as she is up close on a big screen.
Since Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 mad-housewife pioneer is meant to be too good for the middle-class mundanities into which she married, we can almost pretend to justify the disparity between Blanchett’s exquisite intelligence and Robyn Nevin’s mediocre production. But not really. This Hedda does not merely exist in her own superior if damaged mind. She also appears to be in a more eccentric, far more fascinating version of the play than the middling histrionic conventions around her.
This "Hedda" — already the best-selling BAM import in a decade — does have a dashing portrayal of Judge Brack by Hugo Weaving. At least the actor, Blanchett’s fellow elf in "Rings" and movie co-star in the new "Little Fish," makes a worthy confidant and adversary to this unpredictable handful of a Hedda. One may wince a bit when the judge delivers such sardonic anachronisms as "oodles of fun." But the new adaptation, by Andrew Upton, Blanchett’s husband, counterbalances the occasional excess with doggedly helpful psychological detail.
Otherwise, Nevin, artistic director of the company, tears us apart with the incongruities of style. Fiona Crombie’s scenery for the newlywed’s extravagant new house has a nicely suffocating mustiness and persuasive scarcity of furniture. But the set seems lost on the large stage.
Kristian Fredrikson’s costumes put Blanchett in ravishing, long turn-of-the-century gowns that make the most of her endless yards of torso, tarantula arms and almost inhuman swan neck. But does Justine Clarke, Hedda’s competition for the dissipated romantic Lovborg (Aden Young), have to be dressed like a Eliza Doolittle in a fuzzy fright wig? How dowdy does Hedda’s needy Victorian maiden aunt (Julie Hamilton) need to look in order to empathize with the unhappy bride’s marital prison?
Anthony Weigh, as Hedda’s loser of an academic husband, finds a credible energy in Jorgen’s nerdiness. With a less extraordinary Hedda — and without Nevin’s unbearably portentous use of incidental music — we might believe such a diva could settle for such a man.
Whatever the disappointments, Blanchett is never less than mesmerizing. At the start, we almost believe this Hedda might just be a high-maintenance brat. Before long, however, she is not only playfully pulling Justine’s hair — as she did in their schoolgirl days. She is grabbing the woman’s head and grappling her to the ground. Ridiculous? Perhaps. Troubled? Pathologically. Insults pop out of her mouth as if toads from a cursed princess.
Finally, this "Hedda," part of BAM’s ongoing centennial of Ibsen’s death, resembles the way she describes her marriage: "A match made on Earth," not heaven.