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After two plays by Shakespeare and a spectacular musical during opening nights’ week, the Stratford Festival offered us Henrik Ibsen’s astounding drama, Hedda Gabler. It is a well-acted production that is not helped by the large stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre and perhaps the approach of the version it used.
The strength of the production is Sara Topham as the ambitious, bitchy, power-hungry Hedda. Statuesque, imperious, manipulative, aristocratic are the characteristics that begin to define Hedda. The daughter of a now dead general she married the scholarly Tesman (Gordon S. Miller) because he seemed to be on the way up. He took her on a six-month honeymoon where he spent most of the time doing research. She was bored to death.
We first see Hedda on the morning after she returns from her honeymoon wearing a haute couture white gown that defines her social status. We will see her as a nasty person and awful wife but most importantly as a woman who seeks power and dominance over men. This desire reaches its apogee when she tells Lovborg (Brad Hodder), her former lover, to commit suicide by shooting himself in the temple with the gun that she provides.
Hedda is caught in a man’s world, and she is rebelling for personal freedom. I prefer to think that her reprehensible conduct can only be understood as a rebellion from the shackles of a husband that she cannot respect and the machinations of Judge Brack (Tom McCamus) who wants her as his sex toy in a menage a trois where he is the dominant rooster. It is that rebellion for freedom that I did not sense in this production.
Gordon S. Miller played a fine Tesman, an ambitious scholar, unsure about his future and financially strapped with a woman who would try the patience of Job. Tom McCamus is a superb Judge Barck who tries to seduce Hedda and acquire her as an ongoing mistress. He almost succeeds.
Brad Hodder plays Lovborg a brilliant scholar who has fallen off the edge of respectability by becoming an alcoholic. He is on his way to rehabilitation and after a night of drinking and worse he loses the only copy of the manuscript of his masterpiece. He is a man at the end of his rope and commits suicide or is accidentally killed. The issue is left up in the air, but Hedda is crushed by the fact that he did not die heroically with wine leaves on his head and a shot in the temple.
McCamus gives a splendid performance as the self-assured, intelligent plotter to get his way with the beautiful Hedda. He is smooth, intelligent and patient. Superb performance.
Joella Crichton as Mrs. Elsvsted, the woman who helped Lovborg write his masterpiece and an abused acquaintance of Hedda’s in school is the antithesis of Hedda and she brings Hedda’s nastiness into focus.
The production is based on Patrick Marber’s version of the play that he wrote for London’s National Theatre in 2016. That production was directed by Ivo van Hove who had instructed Marber to shape his version for an almost empty stage. Director Molly Atkinson seems to have respected that idea on the large stage of the theatre-in-the round Tom Patterson. There is a fireplace and some seats around it at one end of the oval playing area and a chaise longue almost at the other extreme. That leaves a lot of empty space between the two and having someone by the fireplace and someone on the chaise longue looks like they are talking across a field.
There are no walls in a theatre-in-the-round, and we do not get the sense of a sparsely furnished house that we need perhaps to appreciate Brack’s and Aunt Juliana’s (Bola Aiyeola) financial contribution to Heda’s comfort. The piano is an essential part of the furniture, but it is only heard and not seen.
Atkinson did the best that she could in the theatre that she was given but I suggest that it is the wrong place for this production.
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen in a version by Patrick Marber opened on May 30 and will continues until September 28, 2024,
at the Tom Patterson Theatre,
Stratford, Ontario

June 13, 2024

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