Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Shaw's Hedda Gabler - Lady Macbeth, Maggie, the Cat and a pinch of Cleopatra thrown in!

Gray Powell as Eilert Loevborg, Moya O'Connell as Hedda Gabler and Patrick McManus as George Tesman. Photo by Emily Cooper

Hedda Gabler If Henrik Ibsen's heroine, Hedda Gabler, played NFL football, she would be personified as a ferocious middle linebacker - like gruff Giants Sam Huff, nasty Packers Ray Nitschke and mean Bears Dick Butkus, a human dynamo - guided missile seeking and destroying any ball carrier, and woe indeed to those foolish enough to try and block the way!

The ball carrier in this case is Eilert Loevborg (Gray Powell). Rather than a ball, it's a manuscript. His surname itself cleverly resonates as a former lover, now taken up with Thea Elvsted (Claire Jullien) the wife of the local sheriff. She has magically inspired Eilert in their extramarital co-habitation, to end his raucous drinking and whoring to sober up and co-author an academic treatise of pure genius, causing Hedda's academic husband, George Tesman (Patrick McManus) to express envy and much fear that Eilert will capture a valued professorship position at the University, formerly promised to Tesman. Powell is convincing as Loevborg, and McManus openly recognizes his rival's superiority. He is financially strapped and dependant on securing the position. As a contrast to Hedda, Claire Jullien's Thea Elvsted reveals constant strength beneath a meek exterior, and she risks shame by leaving husband and children.

The action opens in Tesman's house after a six-month "honeymoon," during which, much to Hedda's chagrin, George has poured over archaic documents and books, conducting research as any happily married academic might do, blessed with a beautiful wife. Apparently, there was consummation, and we do learn that Hedda is pregnant despite the tight-waist wardrobe that she wears.

The tiny Court House Theatre assists with the claustrophobia that eats away at Hedda, the haughty daughter of a general who, despite the fact that her husband has enlisted the financial aid of a friend, Judge Brack, (Jim Mezon) to over-speculate in real estate to please her, nonetheless, she is miffed that there is no butler or horse to help satisfy her upper station.

Moya O'Connell revels in a splendid hybrid mixture of Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (in which she starred last season) and Lady Macbeth with a pinch of Cleopatra, a restless, relentless alchemy that seethes with passion for absolute freedom, and she is prepared to act in totally ruthless fashion like a Richard III. She actively steers ex-lover Eilert towards suicide, begging him to "make it beautiful" for her, as she calmly loads and provides him with her father's pistol.

Hedda's societal position is untenable, afflicted with a boring partner played perfectly by McManus, an insecure bookworm, not even called by his first name, George by Hedda until well into the play, a fact that pleases him so much, he calls attention to it.

The ineffectual McManus aptly demonstrates that he is well beyond his depth and that their union can never satisfy the restless Gabler. Mezon as Judge Brack brings sophistication and cunning to his former role of Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. A cold, calculated evil machination, he reflects outward respectability but carries Jimmy Carter's inner lust, and he expertly manipulates people like Hedda. When they go one-on-one, sparks fly. He flirts, suggests that they form a "triangle," and displays patience until opportunity provides him control when he realizes that she has assisted the suicide.

Prior to this, Hedda once saw him approach from her garden and deliberately fired her pistol in his direction, laughing at seemingly a joke, but the judge represents the male dominant world that constricts and denies her liberty. Jennifer Phipps is wonderful as an over-the-hill maid, mumbling and fumbling about, and Mary Haney is effective as Juliana Tesman, George's meddling sister.

Patrick McManus   Moya OConnell   Moya OConnell as Hedda Gabler. Photo by Emily Cooper   Jim Mezon

The play is directed by the celebrated Martha Henry who has accumulated 38 seasons in major roles at Stratford. Over the years, she displays a nuanced take on roles and can masterfully display character by posture alone; however, in Hedda Gabbler, Henry is confronted with a problem. Hedda is an all-or-nothing type, yet the play needs to develop tension, so when she has O'Connell toss about a cushion throughout the entire play, it gradually seems trite. Hedda slaps her octogenarian servant, Berthe, pulls Thea's hair (too often) and moves her father's large-scale picture to a back room, as angst escalates with morning sickness added by the garden entrance and a long, semi-stifled wail into the very cushion that she flings about.

Henry's production is based upon a new text by British theatre celebrity, Richard Eyre, and it is wonderfully rich with intensity, reinforced by William Schmuck's minimal set, utilizing for example, a small flickering red light (is it passion or blood?) that opens the second act, as well as shutters which portray Hedda reacting to manifestations of light and shadow with hints of her own psychic unbalance.

In the program notes by Toril Mol, we learn that when Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) wrote Hedda Gabler, he was already famous from the previous decade from A Doll's House (1879) and Ghosts (1881) to The Wild Duck (1884) and Rosmersholm (1886). His heroines mirrored the frustrations and aspirations of the New Woman. Thus, conservatives hated him; radicals idolized him.

His plays unleashed a culture war in Britain. The Times declared that Hedda was "manifestly a lunatic of the epileptic class." The Review wrote that Hedda Gabler was a "study of a malicious woman of evil instincts, jealous, treacherous, cold-hearted, and, as it seems to us, wholly out of place on the stage."

Yet, Hedda Gabler remains one of Ibsen's most frequently produced plays and ambitious actresses such Annette Bening, Kate Burton, Cate Blanchett and Maggie Smith have longed to play the difficult role, the equivalent of Hamlet for men.

Why does Hedda appeal to us? She dreams of beauty which she associates with vitality, freedom, and grandeur, yet she lives in a world of petty people. Her husband, she quickly discounts, so she picks the reformed alcoholic Eilert Loevborg as her candidate for greatness, egging him on to go to Judge Brack's bachelor party to drink like a true Dionysus. When he disappoints her by getting helplessly drunk, losing his manuscript and finishing the night in Miss Diana's brothel, Hedda tries to turn him into a wild hero, killing himself in glorious beauty. Loevborg shoots himself in the genitals, but accidentally in a brothel brawl. In the end, her doomed refusal to accept a monotonous, meaningless life at the mercy of self-centred mediocrities gives her unforgettable dramatic power.

Hedda Gabler is a brilliant playwright's response to the new modern world that was emerging in Europe. Almost seventy years before John Osborne's Jimmy Porter complained that "there are no great causes to die for anymore" (Look Back in Anger, 1956), Hedda realized the same thing. She is the precursor of Beckett's trapped heroes, as well as of Chekhov's sisters who long for Moscow. Ibsen, credited with inventing modern drama, observed that "life for Hedda is a farce which isn't worth seeing through to the end." His 1890 shocker is well worth seeing at Shaw. The gifted ensemble is excellent, O'Connell's performance alone like watching a coiled snake, ready to snap unhinged.

Hedda Gabler plays until September 29; see:

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