Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York Through March 26
Bottom line: In her U.S. stage debut, film star Cate Blanchett gives a mesmerizing performance in Ibsen’s classic drama.
As Hedda Gabler, that Ibsen heroine who is both cold as ice and full of untapped passions, blond, sinewy Cate Blanchett paces the stage like an anguished animal imprisoned in a cage. In her U.S. stage debut with Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company, the film star ("The Aviator") gives a dynamic, complex performance to prove that she is as riveting in the theater as she is onscreen.
Written by Henrik Ibsen in 1890, "Hedda Gabler" always has challenged actresses, who have played her as everything from neurotic to sexually frigid to sexually voracious.
Under the astute direction of Robyn Nevin, Sydney Theatre Company’s artistic director and CEO, Blanchett acts Hedda as a complicated woman who can’t manage her conflicting emotions.
This Hedda is alternately impulsive and calculating, angry and seductive. Newly married to the boring academic Jorgen Tesman (Anthony Weigh), she wriggles away from him whenever he touches her, but when lying on a chaise or cadging a forbidden cigarette from prurient family friend Judge Brack (Hugo Weaving, of "The Lord of the Rings"), the suggestive movement of Blanchett’s hips and shoulders hints at a woman who is more sexual than she knows. Only in the brief scenes with the romantic intellectual Ejlert Lovborg (Aden Young) does Blanchett become still, momentarily enthralled by the man’s sexual presence.
Blanchett’s Hedda is humorous — she’s a woman who enjoys making sardonic comments. And there’s a bit of Lady Macbeth in this Hedda, too, as she connives with her husband at the expense of the more imaginative Lovborg. Indeed, one of the production’s revelations is that, for all of Hedda’s disgust with her husband, they are well-matched: Both worry about status, both fear what people will think of them.
At BAM’s Harvey theater, you look down on the curving, slightly thrust stage as though you were in an ancient Greek theater, and it is a good vantage point for this production. Designer Fiona Crombie has created an enormous room dotted sparsely with furniture and backed by a high glass wall. The few men and women in Hedda’s life leave this room for the outside world, but Hedda hardly ever departs. She prowls in circles, from chair to chaise and back again, as penned up by her physical environment as she is by her personal limitations.
The production has drawbacks. The slow-paced first act struggles to get past Ibsen’s exposition, and Julie Hamilton plays Tesman’s fussbudget of an aunt as a high-pitched caricature.
But by the second half, Nevin sees to it that the characters and the action draw us in, and the staging holds us through Hedda’s final, awful moments. And of course there’s Blanchett, mesmerizing us with Hedda’s graceful venom and tragically unfulfilled yearnings.
Sydney Theatre Company
Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music
Playwright: Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by: Andrew Upton
Director: Robyn Nevin
Set designer: Fiona Crombie
Costume designer: Kristian Fredrikson
Lighting designer: Nick Schlieper
Julle Tesman: Julie Hamilton
Berte: Annie Byron
Jorgen Tesman: Anthony Weigh
Hedda Gabler: Cate Blanchett
Thea Elvsted: Justine Clarke
Judge Brack: Hugo Weaving
Ejlert Lovborg: Aden Young