Not every audience member would know what Ibsen’s story is about, but virtually everyone who enters the Belvoir Street venue would be aware, even before the show commences, that the title role on this occasion is played by a leading man. Gender subversion remains controversial in the twenty-first century. On a deeply personal level we all invest in gendered concepts that are applied to our daily lives, both consciously and unconsciously. Adena Jacobs’ Hedda Gabler is strange. Like the unusual casting decision, Jacobs’ work resists conventions, expectations and, sometimes, comprehension. It is easy to be dismissive of Jacobs’ artistic decisions when they are unexplained and mystifying, but to paraphrase the art critic Robert Hughes, “no painting that is of any quality can be easy to understand because the value of a painting is its ability to expand one’s experience, and so if it were easy to understand, then it would fall within what you already knew.”
Within the landscape of Australian theatre, Jacobs’ creation is a valuable one that deals with issues of feminism, transgenderism, racism, and social aspirations. Before the show begins, a television set on stage plays what looks to be a telenovela. We see a wedding taking place in the soap opera, as well as familiar archetypes arguing and displaying exaggerated emotion. The stories it tells have been told thousands of times before, with unchanging dramatic arcs and predictable conclusions. Jacobs’ work reinvents dynamics and mechanisms, using a 120-year-old text as a starting point. What happens to Ibsen’s characters do not change, but how they are presented is drastically overhauled. The production bears a severe and muted tone, almost rejecting any empathy from its audience. We are encouraged to observe, but feelings are sacrificed for contemplation. We react in a way that is diametrically opposed to the experience of watching bad television. Impotent passivity becomes political action.
In an environment of strangeness, the viewer’s mind goes into overdrive, persistently questioning artistic choices, and ceases to be a receptacle for easy entertainment. The director’s hand is prominent. Much as we ponder the enigma of Hedda, we never stop wondering what Jacobs wishes to say. Her message is not a straightforward one, which results in a play memorable for its depth and complexity, although there is no question that many would find her approach daunting. Big issues cannot be reduced into easily digestible morsels if their essence is to be retained, but battles must be chosen wisely, and some might consider the aggressively alienating nature of Jacobs’ Hedda Gabler to be self-defeating. The conviction of her vision however, is undeniable, and the idiosyncratic style evident in this staging demonstrates an originality that must not be buried.
Dayna Morrissey’s set design provides an appropriately sterile beauty to Hedda’s world. It conveys luxurious decadence, but also a distant coolness reflective of her disconnection from that world. Action is kept away from the audience. We want a better understanding of the characters but they are always around the house or in the car, both located far upstage, claustrophobic and inaccessible. These people do not connect with each other, and it follows that we too are estranged. Danny Pettingill’s lights are glamorous but rarely warm. It is a cruel and chilly kind of beauty that is achieved, one that speaks volumes about Hedda’s depressive state. Costumes by David Fleischer are oddly naturalistic, especially on the male characters. Thought is put into exposing Hedda’s body rather than concealing it, which is remarkably intriguing, but its aesthetics seem an uncomfortable match against the sophistication created by the set and lighting.
Performances in the piece vary subtly in style and tone between actors. Each appears almost to be starring in individual shows, thereby enhancing the quality of isolation in each character. Marcus Graham is an exuberant Judge Brack. Complete with toothy grin and a Hollywood tan, Graham plays up the role’s artifice and disingenuity with flair. Brack’s falseness is cunning and understated, but also doubtless. Eilert Lovborg is played with great conviction and vigour by the effortlessly magnetic Oscar Redding. His portrayal is the most dramatic of the group, leaving a strong impression with the only truthful outpouring of emotion in the production.
Ash Flanders as Hedda Gabler is highly provocative, but does not embody his character with great authenticity. His work is quite literally a drag act, where a performer pretends to be singing, dancing or acting, while pretending also to be ‘the opposite sex.’ His work seems to emulate legendary film actors like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford, which is an interesting fit for a production that often takes stylistic cues from classic cinema. Hedda’s famed mysteriousness suits Flanders’ method, as he hides more than is revealed, but his presence lacks the allure and power of those movie stars who were able to achieve a great deal while appearing to be doing very little. Flanders is seen half naked for most of the duration, which prevents us from forgetting the contentious dimension of gender being discussed. Having a man play an Ibsen woman is a novelty at this particular point in time, but it also makes a poignant statement. Hedda is a tragic heroine created by a man, with her victimisation and subsequent demise inflicted by her playwright. The surest way for a feminist interpretation of the text is either to reconstruct it radically, or simply not to have a woman play the part at all. Maybe this is a role that makes better sense when taken on by a man.
Branden Christine is the only actor not of Caucasian appearance. She plays Berta, the maid who barely speaks but exudes a silent but impactful tension. The colour of her skin along with the stark degraded social position she occupies is challenging, if not purposefully antagonising. The production makes several powerful statements, and the one about ethnic discrimination is unintended by Ibsen, but is central to this staging.
This is a work about freedom, and its opposite. It exposes the way people come under each other’s control, and depicts the struggle for an idealistic life in the most pessimistic manner. There is however, more than a glimmer of hope that exists in the form of the production’s transgressions. Revolution happens when oppressive structures are dismantled. Jacobs’efforts at inventing a new theatrical language, and her interpretation of the classic text, propels theatre towards something far greater than recreation. It improves culture and political discourse. Points of comfort in our shared notions of art are the canary in a coal mine, which this production locates and engulfs with ruthless waves of disruption.