The Yale School of Drama has undertaken an ambitious project: a production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler.”
Directed by Katherine McGerr, the play may not seem ambitious at first. An uncontested cornerstone of the repertory, “Hedda Gabler” has been interpreted and reinterpreted so many times that it comes to us seemingly ready-made, as if there were a right way to put it on. However, the play has influenced so much subsequent theater that many of its motifs feel well worn, its movements familiar.
“Hedda Gabler” tells the tale of a bored housewife whose husband channels his sexual energy into the annals of scholarship, leaving the titular character dissatisfied. (By a kind stroke of comic fate the production has been put on at the University Theater.) Alcoholism, mortgages, petty professional ambitions, marital discontent, boredom — these are the issues at the heart of Ibsen’s play.
“Hedda Gabler”’s canonical status and familiarity, then, burden the director with two duties: He must neither mar the classic of realist drama with fussy staging, nor fall into the trap of staleness. The production takes some clever steps toward countering the latter tendency, starting with a translation by School of Drama faculty member Paul Walsh, which preserves the memorable astringency of Ibsen’s dialogue. The nervous energy is sharpened by the inclusion of restless and discordant piano pieces that put the audience on edge. Lighting, too, is used to particularly good effect — in the first half, Hedda, an emotionally-starved, high-class neurasthenic, asks, “Can you close the curtains? That’ll give us a softer light.” We sit in the softened evening light of Valium and neuroses, of harsh words and recriminations. Later Hedda lights a match and waits for it to burn her finger until she suddenly puts it out. Afraid to singe herself, she opts instead to burn others. Clasping her rival, Thea, in her arms, she laughs and says, “I think I must burn your hair off, after all.” The words stand out with a harsh clarity, and in its best moments the production does not obscure that light.
Much of the time, however, it treads too lightly. The director delivers Ibsen to us with great caution: inconspicuous set design, period costumes, conventional mise-en-scène. The actors too seem as if they are dusting off a text rather than living and breathing it. Other than Ashton Heyl DRA ’14, who plays Hedda, the actors don’t dare fully humanize the bourgeois wrecks of men and women they play — they give us expansive gestures, prepared chortles and knowing looks, but they do not give us life. This might not be entirely their fault. Hedda outshines the others partly because Heyl inhabits her role more fully, and partly because Ibsen’s heroine consumed his play, burning up everything in her path.
Nor is the conservative bent of the production without its merits. It forces us to use our ears far more than we are used to doing. The direction does not flail its arms but rather leaves one with nothing to do but overhear long, drawn-out conversations and quarrels. The relations between the characters slowly take shape, so that the minor disturbances in the domestic order that come in the second half provoke strong audience reactions. A fired pistol, a swilled flask of gin, a raised voice assume awful power after an hour and a half of subdued conversation in rooms full of leather sofas and oak bureaus.
The production is finest when it rides these subtle ripples of disturbance — Heyl’s eyes flashing as Hedda burns something up; her occasional dissociation into another self as she speaks, one identity dissolving, another suddenly flaring up and flaming out; the moment Loveborg says those terrible lines: “On the fjord there is cool sea-water at any rate — let them drift upon it — drift with the current and the wind. And then presently they will sink — deeper and deeper — as shall I.” In these finer moments, the audience sinks along with him.