The play has been sold out for months and is in the final week of its run. An odd time, you might think, for a critic to condemn it as a "crowd-pleasing celebrity showcase" and lash the performance of its star, Cate Blanchett, as "scandalous".
But that is exactly what The New York Times critic Charles Isherwood has done in a scathing review of the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Hedda Gabler, which ends its successful run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Sunday. Accusing Blanchett of delivering a deeply meretricious performance that "would be merely silly and self-indulgent if it were not also scandalous", Isherwood claims the production "publicly kneecaps" Ibsen’s celebrated play.
Isherwood, a former Variety critic who joined The New York Times two years ago, says Blanchett’s "showy" performance is an abuse of her celebrity status and represents a failure to practise her craft seriously. She and the play’s director, Robyn Nevin, pander to the audience, he says.
"They seem determined to infuse the play with ill-conceived humour and quirky histrionics, as if to let the text speak sensibly for itself even for a minute would risk hurling us all into a state of catatonia," writes Isherwood. "The production brings to mind a brood of squawking chickens fussing about in the barnyard."
Blanchett’s husband, Andrew Upton, does not escape Isherwood’s ire. His adaptation of Hedda is "over-explicit" and "unwisely steeped in a heavy-handed, jarringly contemporary sense of irony".
Summing up, Isherwood suggests Blanchett’s movie star status may have led to what he calls a "sad spectacle".
"Perhaps Blanchett doesn’t dare risk challenging the affections of the audience she has won in movies by engaging in the hard work of making a complex play from the 19th century exude all its troubling colours in the 21st," he writes. "It would certainly not be the first time a gifted artist, particularly an actor, became a hostage to fame and found herself trapped by success, rather than freed by it."
Nevin was at the Sydney Theatre Company yesterday overseeing the first day of rehearsals of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. She declined to comment on Isherwood’s review.
A Sydney Theatre Company spokesman said: "The STC, as a matter of policy, does not comment on or seek to enter into public debate with regard to individual reviews or opinion pieces about our productions."