Attempts to challenge audience perceptions and explore Ibsen’s text fall flat as production misses mark.

Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir, Sydney

July 2, 2014

The honeymoon is over, and Hedda Gabler has just returned home with her new husband, George Tesman. As he goes for a jog, she lies by the spa, momentarily luxuriating in silence.

Beyond her unmoving figure, a news channel flickers on the television. Every visible surface of the room is either littered with unopened boxes or garish floral bouquets. If it weren’t for the small signs of life, it would be easy to think that this was the aftermath of a death.

Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 play Hedda Gabler initially received an overwhelmingly negative response, but it has since cemented itself in the theatrical canon. The title character has become known as one of the great dramatic roles, and has been portrayed by an impressive line of actresses from Glenda Jackson to Cate Blanchett. In Belvoir’s production, Hedda is played by Ash Flanders, one half of Melbourne-based queer theatre company, Sisters Grimm.

In adapting Ibsen specifically for Flanders, director and writer Adena Jacobs attempts to challenge the audience’s perception and more deeply explore Ibsen’s original principles of gender, equality and power. This is not a gaudy drag show though; Flanders approaches the role with sensitive neutrality, and as such, it is very easy to believe in the character’s authenticity. However, the actual purpose of this unorthodox casting remains unclear. It seems little more than a marketing ploy, as it doesn’t really do any service to the character, the narrative or Ibsen’s intended message.

It is difficult to invest in Flanders’ Hedda as she comes across as monochromatic and lacks the spectrum of complexity as described in the text, and frequently by the other characters on stage. He gives a strangely self-conscious performance, over-analysing the smallest of mannerisms but ignoring the broader gravitas of the role. Beauty of dialogue and movement is replaced by a constant coldness; his face remains expressionless and his voice empty.

Perhaps the weight of Hedda is too much to bear for such a youthful actor, or maybe it is simply due to Jacobs’ adaptation. While she hones in on certain details, Jacobs neglects the overall dramatic arch and consistency of both characters and setting. Hedda is portrayed as a gun-obsessed psychopath; but what of her romanticism, immaturity, or manipulative qualities? Judge Brack is seen taking photos on his mobile phone; but what is the real impact of social media, networking and technology in this re-imagined modern setting?

Even the narrative structure is lacking; sequences of prolonged silence struggle for meaning, instead becoming unnecessary and awkward. Lovburg’s final scene of desperation lacks direction and weight, and Hedda’s suicide is unconvincing and uninspired.

The cast delivers dialogue with a lack of conviction, which trivialises scenarios and themes. Despite his relatively minimal role, Marcus Graham (Judge Brack) is the only performer who is believable and compelling. This is a shame, considering Jacobs’ writing is often beautifully poetic; exemplified by the penultimate conversation between Hedda and Thea Elvsted (Anna Houston): “I’m going now, Hedda.” “Where?” “Nowhere, there is nothing before me but darkness.”

With Dayna Morrissey’s Rear Window-style set design, the audience literally peers through the house to observe the action. It’s an interesting concept which creates an uncomfortable feeling of intrusion, but it ultimately spawns drastic sound issues. While actors employ microphone packs, amplification is low and scattered with thuds and scratching. As a result, a large amount of dialogue remains inaudible. In contrast though, Kelly Ryall’s minimalist compositions are welcome additions to the overall sound design.

It is not surprising that a smattering of audience members left midway through the performance. When a company stages an unfaithful reworking that borrows the play’s original name, it is exploiting the audience’s trust and expectations.

Sadly, this production failed to meet the hype that surrounded it.

Hedda Gabler is at Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre, Sydney until August 3.