Jagged-edged porcelain shards

Times Staff Writer

When Cate Blanchett’s Hedda Gabler saunters disdainfully through the new home that her husband’s aunt has taken great financial risks to elaborately furnish, it’s hard not to feel worried about the old lady’s investment. Nothing could possibly live up to this Hedda’s stylish example -- or be safe around it. One has only to hear her deliver the compliment “lovely” as though it were the word “loathsome” to know that her porcelain-like prettiness is deadly.

The main thing that the Sydney Theatre Company’s oddly calibrated production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” which opened Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, gets right is the intimidation factor of beauty on those less aesthetically privileged.

For once, all the awed talk about the great Gen. Gabler’s magnificent daughter makes sense. Blanchett has not only the looks but also the necessary hauteur to motivate the groveling of her pedantic husband, Tesman (Anthony Weigh), and his relentlessly middle-class Aunt Julle (Julie Hamilton), both of whom are still astounded that this illustrious woman -- a veritable Norwegian Cleopatra to them -- has joined their suburban ranks.


The story of a high-born (and possibly frigid) woman trapped in a marriage she considers beneath her, “Hedda Gabler” is a case study in the destructive perversities of a haughty temperament miserably wed. Suffice it to say that this desperate housewife could give lessons in vindictiveness to her TV descendants.

Typically it’s when she’s most quiet -- a simmering presence of elegant disdain -- that Blanchett’s Hedda is at her cruelest. Her performance visually underscores Elizabeth Hardwick’s assessment of Ibsen’s antiheroine as “one of the meanest romantics in literature.”

If the staging were a silent one, there would be reason to pronounce it a triumph. Unfortunately, there are pages and pages of spoken words, furnished by an over-explicit adaptation by Andrew Upton (Blanchett’s husband), and directed with sputtering Ingmar Bergman pretension by Robyn Nevin. The result is a “Hedda” that, paralleling the protagonist’s own course, never realizes the promise of the ice-queen exquisiteness in its midst.

In this centennial year of Ibsen’s death, it has become somewhat hard to remember that the playwright is the father of modern realism. Directors, trying to liberate the vision from its late 19th century dramaturgy, have tended to both externalize and exaggerate the emotion frozen within the plays’ carefully plotted novelistic sprawl.

When this postmodern style is flamboyantly administered by European auteurs such as Ivo van Hove and Thomas Ostermeier, the effect can be intermittently revelatory, exposing the psychological aggression of characters cornered by each other in stuffy parlors. Of course, more traditional productions can do the same when blessed with actors of quaking depth like Janet McTeer (who won a Tony in 1997 for playing Nora in “A Doll’s House”) and Fiona Shaw (whose Hedda in Deborah Warner’s 1993 televised production will have to go down as one of the most memorably eerie).

Nevin can’t seem to decide whether to stick to tradition or leap into the experimentalist breach. She moves, regrettably, in the direction of half-measures, settling for routine domestic reality one minute, screeching expressionism the next -- and neither very convincingly.


With her classical training and reliable intelligence, Blanchett could certainly have offered a first-rate orthodox portrait (and swaths of it are on display here), though it’s hard to see how she could be a part of something more daring without regular ensemble exercise. Bergman’s actors were able to execute his brand of explosive stage realism only through steady repertory interaction with European masterpieces. And Nevin clearly is no Bergman.

Blanchett falls into melodramatic slithering and hand-wringing when she’s asked to heighten her playing. But then how could anyone cope with direction that infuses small talk with violent lurching and hissing? Blanchett’s stillness is so compelling that you begin to resent the production for not allowing her to do what she does best: live authentically in her character’s harrowing interior world.

The women tend to suffer more from the misdirection. Even the otherwise excellent Justine Clarke, who plays Thea, the mousey old schoolmate of Hedda’s who unwittingly opens concealed wounds, has difficulty bearing the brunt of Hedda’s hyper-theatrical assaults.

The men aren’t required to amp up as ludicrously. Hugo Weaving, a devilish delight in “The Matrix” series, is seductively sinister as Judge Brack, a Hedda admirer who would exploit any opportunity for an erotic intrigue. Weigh makes an appropriately bumbling Tesman, a specialist in medieval domestic crafts with an innate talent for “collating and arranging papers.” Aden Young turns Lovborg, the wanton alcoholic genius whom Hedda considers her soul mate, into a gorgeously tortured Pre-Raphaelite Christ.

But nothing cuts as stunning an image as Blanchett tuning into her character’s inner turmoil alone onstage. It’s when the production asks her to drastically turn up the volume that these rare moments of sublimity vanish.