Theatre Review: the Shaw Festival’s Hedda Gabler
By Allan Gould
Moya O'Connell as Hedda Gabler (Image: Emily Cooper)
Let me flatly state my feelings about the Shaw Festival’s revival of Hedda Gabler: this one is for the ages. From Richard Eyre’s adaptation (more than merely a translation) to director Martha Henry’s grand direction to the blood-curdling artistry of Moya O’Connell’s astonishing title character to Jim Mezon’s inspired, evil Judge Brack, the production finally gives the magnificent playwright Henrik Ibsen his due.
If I were to teach a course on feminism, I could choose nothing better than this production of Hedda to illuminate my students.
Hedda is a general’s daughter, and though she would be expected to drop her maiden name and adopt the surname of her dull scholar-professor husband George Tesman (played well by Patrick McManus), everyone still calls her “Hedda Gabler.” It’s a sign that she is more her father’s daughter than she is anyone’s lover or wife — or even herself.
“I was born bored!” cries Hedda at one point, and the word “tedious” often leaves her lips — although the production is never tedious for the audience. True, Hedda is one of the least likable literary characters in history, but it is not by chance that the role is considered the “female Hamlet.” And the beautiful, spiteful, frustrated Hedda of Ms. O’Connell is awesomely good; it’s a performance I shall never forget.
This magnificent production is playing in the attractive (but claustrophobic) Courthouse Theatre, which denies the play one of its most striking images: in each scene, Hedda is quite literally pushed deeper and deeper into smaller and smaller spaces. It’s a brilliant symbol of her social and personal milieu. In the original text, we meet Hedda in a living room, then a den, then finally in a bedroom, truly squished into an increasingly inescapable situation (a much-dreaded pregnancy does not help, either).
Is the Shaw Festival’s Hedda Gabler an easy evening of theatre? Hardly. It is tough, sad, funny and heartbreaking, like the character of Hedda herself. But what it says about — and how it portrays — the situation of smart women trapped in a sexist society is more profound and insightful than a dozen feminist texts.
Hedda Gabbler, Shaw Festival, Courthouse Theatre, 26 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, 905-468-2172. Now - Sept. 29.