TV REVIEWS : Visually Exciting, Powerful ‘Hedda Gabler’

The “Masterpiece Theatre” presentation of “Hedda Gabler” (at 9 p.m. Sunday on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15, 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24) is such a nervously paced, demanding production that it seems likely that only viewers familiar with the play will be able to feel the tragedy of an anti-heroine who, caged like a bird, withdraws into her red music room and kills herself.

Irish actress Fiona Shaw and director Deborah Warner eschew the traditional stage Hedda associated with power, strength and dark beauty in favor of a vulnerable, jittery Hedda--"a woman,” Shaw explains in an insightful, two-minute introduction, “destroyed by her fears before the story begins.”

The movie is visually exciting, with production designer Hildegard Bechtler masterfully mirroring the dark, drafty, painterly, high-ceilinged Victorian rooms in Hedda’s mansion. The house, in fact, becomes a bleak character in the story.


But the movie’s muffled soundtrack is distracting. Not only does Shaw’s Hedda frequently intone her agony in whispers, so that you find yourself bending toward the screen to catch everything, but her accent, at least to an American ear, is just blurry enough to obliterate much of her dialogue.

But given the drama’s accumulative power, it’s not crucial that you absorb every word. In fact, Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 tragedy of a woman stifled and domesticated to the breaking point and thus immolating everyone around her could almost be understood without any soundtrack at all, given the visually expressive cast: Nicholas Woodeson as newlywed Hedda’s banal, clumsy, well-meaning husband; Irish leading man Donal McCann as the lecherous, conniving judge, and Stephen Rea (“The Crying Game’s” IRA terrorist) as Hedda’s unstable former lover.