Hedda Gabler is one of the great realist plays, and the role of Hedda is one of the great roles for women because she isn’t, simply, a woman or a wife. She is complicated; she is bored and daringly discontent. She is manipulative and dispassionate.
In Belvoir’s new production, directed by Adena Jacobs, this great, jewel-in-the-crown role for a female actor is played by a man: Ash Flanders, half of high-camp genderfluid theatre duo Sisters Grimm.
Instantly, with a man assuming womanhood in the role, the play adopts a queer sensibility that is both not a big deal at all and sort of a big deal; queer otherness is certainly an oft-explored concept in art and it is for a reason, and certainly there is queerness to Hedda, inherent in her atypical womanhood. Flanders, relievingly, doesn’t affect female mannerisms or characteristics. He plays her in her swimsuit and she is there, part of the world but not part; deliberately, emotionally, absent. He is a woman but he doesn’t perform femininity, because Hedda doesn’t perform femininity, and the choice doesn’t offend.
What Flanders does adopt is an extreme calculation, a distance and dissonance from the world around her, his Hedda. She is deliberately, painfully, a challenge: she ignores the play itself for a good five minutes. She lounges. She refuses to engage. Her husband explains his grief; she fires up a first-person-shooter on her console and plays instead. Hedda is a blank slate brimming with violent boredom underneath.
Flanders is an interesting, unrelenting Hedda, but the problem with Adena Jacobs’ production is that she doesn’t allow emotional clarity and gravitas to settle into the other characters. It’s difficult to sympathise with Thea (Anna Houston) as Hedda casually, cruelly, ruins her life, because Thea is broadly painted: desperate and docile.
Marcus Graham, one of the best actors today on a measurement scale of finding and presenting an inner sociopath to the world (in the best possible way) brings a flicker of life into Hedda’s eyes with his Brack; there is consistently the feeling that Hedda isn’t really playing his game, indulging his triangle, but that she finds going through the motions with him a little more fun than she does with anyone else, because he is at least subversive. Not like her husband Tesmond (Tim Walter, charmingly hipsterised), who is not so much interesting as he is gently intelligent yet ineffectual.
The person who draws Hedda’s interest most: the only person who has ever really captured her real interest, is Lovburg (Oscar Redding, scattered and strong), that recently reformed disaster drunk that Hedda once, maybe, loved. She finds beauty in his tragedy, probably always has; he twists in her mind’s eye to some sort of icon with vine leaves in his hair. She can’t abide her genuine feelings for him so when she wants to unravel him, she does it with more fire than she does anything else. She goads him into drinking again; she stands downstage and burns that manuscript like it’s the best/worst thing she’s ever done, she pushes him to a death of her control, because she needs control over something, possibly the only thing, that has threatened her control: and when she doesn’t get it, well, we all know the ending.
Jacobs directs with a strong and individual hand; her sense of space and timing feels like an evolution of her work on Persona, at Belvoir last year. She stages Flanders and Hedda as a separate being from the life of the play, at times a tableau vivant while the bustle of life continues beyond her, unobtrusive. She is untouched and untouchable, until she isn’t.
The set is clean and modern, unflinchingly modern; the play is set today, here, America, somewhere Western and indulgent, which makes sense, as the play has always been progressive and modern, and women are still boxed into gender and family roles, belonging to parents and then husbands and expected to belong to lovers and friends and never to themselves.
There are some sound problems with the production, crucially, in a work when tone and manner and timbre speak more than words. Scenes in a car and in Hedda’s home/sun-room are amplified and difficult to really understand. This too inhibits our ability to connect with Thea and Tesmond; we can’t care about them, not really, when we can’t hear them, or see them, or feel that they are, in some way, real.
In the end, the production is too distant, as a whole, to feel impactful. With Hedda so internal, she feels at times inaccessible, dropped into this production of Hedda Gabler from another one, almost. No one is quite on the same page and so too are we not sure of which page we’re on. It’s perplexing and oddly muted. But it is thought-provoking, and it – like Hedda herself – is not easily dismissed.