Reviewer: Dan Bacalzo
March 2, 2006
Cate Blanchett is luminous as the title character of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. The Academy Award-winning actress is making her American stage debut in this stellar production by the Sydney Theatre Company, currently playing a limited engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The stunningly beautiful Blanchett commands the stage with a casual ease, displaying Hedda’s arrogance, boredom, and her penchant for manipulation. Yet the actress is equally adept at capturing the character’s sense of humor; her comic timing is impeccable, and a slight shift in her vocal intonation has the audience roaring with laughter on more than one occasion. Her non-verbal mannerisms are also expressive, conveying volumes with a simple gesture or a slight shrug of her shoulders. Blanchett shades her performance with subtleties; she delves deeply into Hedda’s contradictions and insecurities, exposing the fear and jealousy that drives many of her actions — including the decisive one that ends the play.
The production features a terrific new adaptation by Andrew Upton that is true to Ibsen’s original while making the language seem both contemporary and timeless. Upton has streamlined some of the more expository passages of the play and has made certain plot elements — such as Hedda’s pregnancy — more explicit. But there are no liberties taken with the basic story, which begins as Hedda and her husband, Jorgen Tesman (Anthony Weigh), return to their newly purchased house following a long honeymoon. Hedda is already chafing against the confines of her marriage. The situation is exacerbated by the presence of Judge Brack (Hugo Weaving), whose interest in Hedda goes beyond the limits of propriety, and the re-emergence of Ejlert Lovborg (Aden Young), a one-time secret paramour of Hedda’s.
Guided by the sure hand of director Robyn Nevin, the production is enriched by a number of strong supporting players. Weigh’s Tesman strikes a balance between a sweet-natured disposition and a pathetic neediness and insecurity; the actor makes the character seem nerdy without being stereotypical, and he handles both the comic and dramatic moments of the script with aplomb. Weaving — best known in this country for his roles in such films as The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — proves to be a fine stage actor. He doesn’t overplay Judge Brack’s seedier qualities, instead allowing the character’s charm to serve as a counterpoint to his morally questionable behavior.
Julie Hamilton is a delight as Tesman’s Aunt Julle, her rapport with Weigh making the close relationship between aunt and nephew believable. Young cuts a dashing figure as Lovborg, and the extreme emotions that his character experiences always seem heartfelt. Justine Clarke is quite good as Thea Elvsted — a former classmate of Hedda’s, now involved with Lovborg — although she sometimes plays the character a bit too broadly in order to gain laughter or pity from the audience. Annie Byron’s performance as the maid, Berte, is marred by her tendency to overdo the character’s emotional responses.
Kristian Fredrikson’s period costumes are wonderful, particularly the elegant outfits worn by Blanchett’s Hedda. Fiona Crombie’s handsome set incorporates heavy black drapes, signifying an oppressive solemnity that literally hangs over the stage action. Nick Schlieper’s lighting is gorgeous, especially as it streams through the windows and captures the different times of day indicated by the script. Unfortunately, Alan John’s musical compositions are too heavy on brass instrumentation; they have a melodramatic quality that the production as a whole resists. Despite this and other quibbles, the Sydney Theatre Company’s Hedda Gabler is a masterful exploration of Ibsen’s classic drama, and Blanchett’s performance is liable to make you forget the production’s minor imperfections.