I think what I find most amusing about this production is that Belvoir consider me disrespectful of their artists and have banned me from their comp tickets list and yet nothing expresses more disrespect to artists than what Belvoir have done with this play.
Let’s start with the disrespect shown for the original writer of ‘Hedda Gabler’, Henrik Ibsen. Director and adapter, Adena Jacobs, has taken the strong messages of Ibsen’s work- liberation, self-fulfilment, duty, and produced a play that offered no clear message at all. What is the point of adapting a work if the new version fails to deliver any clear intention? I, and many others around me, questioned the mixed messages or dramatic meaning expressed (or attempting to express) in this play. Is this now a play about race? About transgender? About breakdowns? Because to me, it’s now a play about nothing… no one gives a toss. It’s so confused- it’s a melting pot of ideas and none of them have come to fruition because it lacks control and coherence. It’s like a slow cooker where you have thrown all the ingredients from the pantry into its base and then after it’s cooked, you have ruined the taste of every single flavour they once had.
And this play is slow. Painfully slow. The silence at the start lacks any real intention. It’s drawing out the boredom I suppose, of Hedda’s (Ash Flanders) new married life but instead it serves to bore me before the dialogue has even begun. By all means- take ten minutes before you allow anyone to speak if you want and try to create a realistic existentialist passing of time. However, it comes across as if you’ve run out of things to say as a writer or director before your show has even got rolling because you pushed it too far. I’m sure it was meant to show that Hedda and Tesman (Tim Walters) had run out of things to say and now, returned from their honeymoon, she is already bored. Unfortunately it shot itself in the temple at the very start.
Can we now address the design? The glass box? The luxury car? The pool? The American Dream apparently. First thing, if you were looking to pay homage to Simon Stone and Benedict Andrews and their consistent vision in the staging of any show they direct, well done. What I saw was ‘Death of a Salesman’, ‘Every Breath’ and every other play they’ve done, all merged into one very confused choice. Let’s forget the problems with sightlines and with sound and ask instead, if it’s okay to set this play in the today, in the United States, with Aussie accents, in boxes, have you really thought through what you’re trying to say and does it match the total vision? Designer Dayna Morrissey has rehashed some of Jacobs’ last show at Belvoir, ‘Persona’ and given Jacobs every opportunity to be as bad as Stone was when he youthfully embarked on a mainstage directorial career. At least it’s equal opportunity failure.
The nudity? Oh please. Why? Just why? What do we gain by Ash Flanders trouncing around in a fur jacket with no pants and then looking out of the glass box for a significant amount of time, naked? I mean…what? Why? Bertie (Branden Christine) stripping off to lie in the pool? I mean, if being naked is the strongest symbol you’ve got, let’s get Aunt Julie (Lynette Curran) to streak across the stage to show how much she’s relishing new life coming into the household, get Thea Elvsted (Anna Houston) to take off her gear to represent how the rejection from Eijlert Lovborg (Oscar Redding) has left her exposed or Judge Brack (Marcus Graham) can throw his tackle in the mix to show that he is ‘the only cock in the yard’. The naked metaphor is so overused that it’s almost become redundant. There must be smarter ways you can symbolise the characters’ plight than forcing the actors to strip off and stand awkwardly in front of your audience.
Now let’s talk about the elephant in the room- the casting of a man to play Hedda Gabler. Let’s focus for a moment on the disrespect to actresses everywhere that you are essentially saying that Hedda would be better represented by a man and no woman could deliver your (lack of) message in this production. I also love the program note that addresses the choice by Jacobs to cast Flanders as ‘This is not a place for explanations, as I hope the production speaks for itself….’ If casting Flanders upon meeting him, you thought he represented ‘the yearning of escape, the terror of difference, a person squeezing out of their environment...’ you have a limited view of what you have just done to this play. You have kicked Ibsen’s play in the guts and ripped out its soul, where the feminist through-line of ‘Hedda Gabler’ marries the themes so distinctly.
Flanders was wooden (perhaps directed so- he has been beautifully animated in other plays I have seen him in). The kindest thing I could say about his Hedda was how impressed I was with the tucking. The ensemble are good but they are in a play that died long before it hit the stage and I’d like to thank them for making me endure only one curtain call before we all got to wash ourselves of that experience.
It cost me $60 to see this play. Belvoir should be handing out more than Ralph Myers’ resignation letter after that show. They should be throwing bar vouchers at its audience so you can drink the memories of ‘Hedda Gabler’ into oblivion.
There is a brilliant short film by Stephen James King that, long before Belvoir made the choice to cast a man as Hedda Gabler, satirises this notion. Watch it. It may be the medicine to this show.