Amid the decaying opulence of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, there’s trouble afoot, and her name is Hedda. In her much-anticipated American stage debut, Cate Blanchett gives a taut, intelligent, and revelatory performance as Ibsen’s infamous anti-heroine. A renowned film actress (she won an Academy Award just last year for her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator), Blanchett originally got her start on the stage, and to watch her in this medium is to watch a performer who seems to have truly come home.
In presenting the U.S. premiere of the Sydney Theater Company’s award-winning Hedda Gabler, BAM has scored a coup de théâtre, wisely retaining all of the production’s prime elements, from Andrew Upton’s lively, smart adaptation to Kristian Fredrikson’s sleek, sumptuous costumes. Under Robyn Nevin’s evocative direction, this Hedda Gabler crackles with intensity and suspense. From the first dramatic moment when the lights go down (just quickly and unexpectedly enough to make you catch your breath), this highly visceral production will make you feel relieved to be watching from the relative safety of your seat.
The daughter of a respected general, Hedda has just returned to her new home from a six-month honeymoon with her husband, Jorgen Tesman (Anthony Weigh). The couple is clearly mismatched (shirking romantic whimsy, Hedda describes their union as "a match made on earth"), and she is openly bored by Tesman’s uninspired academic ambitions. When her old acquaintance Thea Elvsted (Justine Clarke) bursts in with a frantic plea, Hedda begins to manipulate the lives of those around her—including a former love interest and a family friend—to tragic ends.
Hedda is often described as the female Hamlet—a role so filled with ambiguities and questionable motives that it requires an accomplished performer adept enough to negotiate its flimsy boundaries. Ibsen’s writing is clear but spare, leaving much open to the interpretation of actor and director. In other words, it begs for the signature of a consummate actress.
Blanchett rises to the task and fully surpasses it with a superbly defined performance. Her Hedda is intelligent, cunning, and athletic—as she prowls the set, her fluid movements can never be counted on to follow a predictable pattern. Through the overt use of bars and a wall of jail-like windowpanes, set designer Fiona Crombie suggests Hedda’s entrapment. But even as she lashes out with jealousy against her perceived captors, Blanchett disarmingly conveys the extent to which Hedda holds herself captive.
Discovering "what it’s like to have control over someone’s life," Blanchett uses her deep, husky voice to full advantage, infusing Ibsen’s text with a multitude of colors and textures. "I get this urge," she moans, looking as if she’d rather be anywhere than laced into her high-necked gown. Urges and all, though, Hedda lives more through the lives of others rather than for herself. When Thea confides that she has run away from an unhappy domestic life, Hedda incredulously—and somewhat greedily—confirms, "You’d risk everything." Here, Hedda seems to speak to herself, faulting her own cowardice and a terror of scandal that paralyzes her. Like the colorful new furniture that Tesman requires Hedda to protect with muted covers, Blanchett’s Hedda is stifled beneath a protective veneer of her own making.
Composer Alan John’s music offers a powerful, supplemental rendering of Hedda’s imprisonment. Reminiscent of a frenetic funeral dirge, the music employs pounding timpani and maddeningly plucked strings to reflect a state of inner chaos.
As Hedda’s confidant, the gallant-turned-ghastly Judge Brack, Hugo Weaving gives a marvelously controlled performance as he admirably convinces the audience of his (questionably) good intentions. Clarke delicately brings forth the shrewdness of the ostensibly flighty and impressionable Thea, while admirably holding her own opposite Blanchett.
Weigh comes on a bit strong as Tesman (perhaps overselling his eccentric posturing), but his boyish energy successfully foils Hedda’s sarcasm, often rendering him a spoiled and rather simple child. Aden Young makes a strong impression as the brooding author Ejlert Lovborg.
The answers to many of the play’s questions are not self-evident (for example, why does Hedda marry Tesman in the first place?), and in the steady hands of the Sydney Theater Company—grounded by the even steadier presence of Blanchett—this Hedda Gabler makes a powerful statement about the importance of making choices for oneself, as well as the perils of inaction. And whether she makes you laugh, flinch, or shudder, Blanchett won’t allow you to look away.