Without a doubt, the most disappointing offering of the 2012 Shaw Festival is Martha Henry’s curious production of Hedda Gabler (in a relatively new version by Richard Eyre).
In jazz circles, it’s well understood that a good rhythm section is better felt than heard (save and except for the mind-numbing solos that add to the mix of the free-wheeling leads). In the theatre, savvy designers (none better than William Schmuck and Kevin Lamotte) know how to render sets, costumes and lighting that provides a convincing yet unobtrusive platform for the ensuing drama rather than overwhelm the text and the players with too much “art.” (In music theatre, that notion is frequently turned on its head—cross-reference below).
1890 Norway in a beyond-their-means-until-the-professorship-is-confirmed house is beautifully brought to life in subtlety detailed fashion with a covey of Earth tones, warm sunshine when required and a stern portrait of “General Papa” that speaks volumes to character, providing the ideal backdrop for the tragedy of Hedda Tesman and her inner circle.
Yet from the long-suffering maid, Berthe’s (Jennifer Phipps stoically doing all that she is asked) first entry, notice is served that there’s more dull comedy afoot than searing personal calamities in the offing.
In the title role, Moya O’Connell’s performance is as severe as her hair to the point where her final act comes across more “good for her” than “Oh my god, how could she?” (A couple of examples: the ongoing business with disdainful tosses of the garish cushions count for nothing at the payoff; the intriguing notion of just who might be the author of her morning sickness never comes into play.)
Hedda’s husband George (Patrick McManus) is definitely bookish, loyal and dumb, yet never finds the magic from the consequences of willfull blindness and blind devotion to sell his persona.
Gray Powell as Eilert Løvborg does his best work when falling off the wagon—the simmering, scientific genius lurking in his character’s weeds is left largely unplumbed.
Jim Mezon’s portrait of Judge Brack has the requisite amount of calculating slime but somehow the delivery drew more laughs than Ibsen intended.
As Thea Elvsted, the ever-devoted secretary/paramour to brilliance-in-the-rough, Claire Jullien convinced until she too-readily got over her loss and began recreating her apparent lover’s manuscript (with George happily at her side) as if both were delighted to be playing Scrabble with a surfeit of triple-word scores.
Mary Haney was appropriately steadfast and all-seeing in her role as George’s sister Juliana.
An odd choice indeed was utilizing a snippet of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre to fulfill the direction “she [Hedda] is heard playing a wild dance tune on the piano” just prior to the troubled heroine’s adieu. That famous tri-tone—desperately wanting a violin’s tuned-down e-string—is more siren call to devilish adventures than metaphor for madness.
What would Ibsen have thought living his life in the Hall of the Mountain King instead of Peer Gynt?
‘Nuff said. JWR