nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
March 4, 2006
Watching Cate Blanchett’s Hedda Gabler is like watching a caged panther—an elegant, beautiful animal clearly out of sync with her environment, but whose inner fire and enormous energy are still mesmerizing, equally so when she’s being charming and when she’s being cruel. The difference, of course, is that rather than being grabbed by hunters in some far-off country, Hedda is in a trap of her own making; she consciously made the choices that have caged her—judging them the best of the alternatives available to her—but only over the course of the play realizes how badly she has misjudged. Blanchett’s riveting performance illuminates every tiny twist and turn along the path to Hedda’s doom.
Hedda Gabler is the maiden name of the newlywed Hedda Tesman, just returned from an extended honeymoon with her scholarly husband, Jurgen Tesman. Tesman brings the bride home into what he thinks is her dream house, into the familial embrace of his doting aunts Julle and Rina, and into a complicated friendship with Judge Brack, a local man-about-town who, among other things, arranged the mortgage on the Tesmans’ lavish new home. But all of Tesman’s plans to cocoon himself in the study of medieval craft guilds, and all of Hedda’s ambitions to turn her husband into at least a distinguished professor and at most a political figure, are complicated by the return of two figures from Hedda and Jurgen’s past. Eilert Lovborg was once both a suitor of Hedda’s and an academic rival of Jurgen’s, but alcoholism and Hedda’s rejection nipped his promising career in the bud—until the recent publication of a well-received book. Thea Elvsted, a former schoolmate of Hedda’s, has become Lovborg’s “comrade” and secretary—and has left her husband to be with him. The sudden appearance of first Thea and then Eilert on the Tesmans’ doorstep proves the ruin of the tenuous peace Hedda has made with herself, with Tesman, and with Brack, and tragedy ensues.
What really stood out for me here was Blanchett’s delineation of the evolution of Hedda over the course of the play. Her Hedda is painfully, exquisitely conscious of the potential consequences of each of her actions, even the impulsively cruel ones. She’s bold within the limits of her sphere but ultimately trapped by a conventionality that she both accepts and despises in herself; she would never dare, for example, as Thea has dared, to leave her husband publicly, and she knows full well her own cowardice. Blanchett’s performance is so precise, and so specific that you can watch the consciousness that she has fatally miscalculated—that she will forever be the pawn of Judge Brack’s emotional blackmail—dawn, moment by moment and line by line, across her face.
And because Blanchett so fully inhabits each moment, I learned things about the character of Hedda I’d never known before. I’d never seen the fun in Hedda before, the fact that she’s constantly testing the limits of her world and finding to her satisfaction that she can control her environment as much as she had planned to. As the “general’s daughter” she’d enjoyed a certain amount of freedom, and finagled a certain amount more; she chose to marry Tesman specifically to ensure that she could continue to do pretty much as she wants, and takes genuine pleasure in proving that to be true. I’d never noticed the affection in her relationship with Tesman, or that part of Hedda’s annoyance with Aunt Julle is for the way she infantilizes Tesman.
The other performances in general are solid, but not revelatory. Anthony Weigh’s Tesman is charmingly obsessed with his Brabantian craft guilds. Aden Young’s Eilert Lovborg stands out, but that’s partially because the character has a fire and a passion that none of the other characters have.
I found Robyn Nevin’s directing unexpectedly clumsy. Some of the blocking is murky and some of it heavy-handed. I was confused by the way both the staging and Fiona Crombie’s elegant set delineate—or fail to delineate—the different rooms and areas of the Tesman House. Nevyn’s tendency to locate actors downstage center, either staring thoughtfully toward the audience or lecturing while facing directly upstage, seems a little melodramatic. I also found the very somber music to add unnecessary foreshadowing.
But in the end, any production of Hedda Gabler is really going to rise and fall on its Hedda, and Cate Blanchett’s Hedda rises triumphantly.