Sooner or later, they're going to have to put Hedda Gabler on ice, to judge by the implication of a TONY colleague who says he's seen four productions in the last two or three seasons. It's probably true: I'm by no means a regular theatergoer, much to my regret, but the Hedda I saw on Tuesday night at the BAM Harvey Theater was my second this year...in the same theater.
The earlier one, which I caught back in March, was a handsome period production from the Sydney Theater Company, directed by Robyn Nevin. Performed in English, it was first-rate classical theater, with Cate Blanchett playing the title role with a sadism barely concealed by her cool beauty. The fine cast also featured Hugo Weaving as an intense Judge Brack.
The production currently on view at BAM, from the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin, is anything but classical theater. Neither is it a perverse reworking, despite that company's rebellious reputation. Director Thomas Ostermeier gently relocates the action to the present, notable mostly through costumes, cell phones and laptop computers. The German translation, by Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel retains virtually all of Ibsen's vision, apart from a handful of small but telling deviations. (The play was performed in German with projected English translation.)
The set, by Jan Pappelbaum, is a beautiful piece of work: a stark, spacious living room on a massive, rotating rectangular platform, which spins to provide an exterior view and glimpses of a smaller side room. A mirrored ceiling lent a sense of enclosure while making the characters seem ever exposed, in much the same way that Anthony Minghella used that effect in his Madama Butterfly at the Met. Sliding glass panels that separated the living room from the garden outside were often streaked with rivulets of rain, adding to the general gloom and feeling of entrapment. The play was performed without intermission; during scene changes, video projections by Sebastien Dupouey conveyed a sense of Hedda's essential isolation, even outside the house.
Setting aside, what really distinguished this Hedda from the one I saw in spring was the conception of the central character. Where Cate Blanchett had given a traditional performance in which the character's vulnerability and despair were masked by a willful cruelty, the foremost aspect of Katharina Schüttler's portrayal was a sort of numbed ennui, a free-floating detachment that suggested her character was more or less complacent in the face of a loveless life in which the threat of downward mobility was real, yet too intangible to warrant genuine engagement. Small and slight, Schüttler exuded sexuality rather than wielding it. Even her manipulation of the weak males that surrounded her came too easily to provide any sort of satisfaction.
The most fascinating actor was Lars Eidinger, who played Hedda's milquetoast husband, Jørgen Tesman. So convincing was the overall bland amiability of Eidinger's performance that on the rare occasions when Tesman's temper flares, it was genuinely frightening. Kay Bartholomäus Schulze was an Eilert Løvborg lean, elegant and supremely confident in his sober mastery, and a pathetic wreck in his final lapse. Annedore Bauer, as the simple but determined Mrs. Elvsted, was vivid and alluring. Lore Stefanek brought a doting charm to her portrayal of Tesman's Aunt Julle. I wasn't nearly as taken with Jörg Hartmann, a Judge Brack who seldom seemed to truly exert his obvious power over Tesman, or Hedda, for that matter; he came off as a seasoned senior colleague rather than a domineering magistrate.
Ostermeier's most audacious retooling of the play came at the very end, in a twist designed to convey the shock of the final scene in an altogether different manner. It was certainly vivid, if rather out of character: what the director seemed to suggest was that, far from being the center of power, Hedda was never anything more than a discardable bauble. It's a debatable view, but a provocative one nonetheless. (A TONY colleague who saw Nora, Ostermeier's earlier reworking of Ibsen's A Doll's House, said that the two shows are very similar in that respect and numerous others.)
Music isn't a vital concern in Hedda Gabler, but Ostermeier's use of "God Only Knows," a Beach Boys song that barely conceals the possibility of despair behind its sunny melody and rich arrangement, provided an effective leitmotif for his conception. As an operaphile, I couldn't help but think that Ostermeier might be capable of genuine wonders with Janáček. Moreover, he has already directed his company in Büchner's Woyzeck and Wedekind's Lulu. Might James Levine be in the mood for new productions of his beloved Berg?
Hedda Gabler continues at the BAM Harvey Theater through Saturday, December 2.
Various Artists - The EMI Record of Singing, Volume Three (1926-1935) (Testament)
Marillion - Holidays in Eden (Sanctuary)
King Crimson - Beat (Virgin)
Augusta Read Thomas - Rumi Settings; Piano Etudes 1-6; Incantation; Bubble: Rainbow - (spirit level); Bells Ring Summer; Pulsar; Chant; Prairie Sketches I - Tony Arnold; Amy Dissanayake Briggs; Callisto Ensemble/Cliff Colnot (ART)
Pēteris Vasks - Symphony No. 3; Cello Concerto* - Marko Ylönen*, Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgårds (Ondine)
Anna Netrebko - Russian Album - Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre/Valery Gergiev (Deutsche Grammophon)
Richard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier - Claire Watson, Hilda de Groote, Brigitte Fassbaender, Karl Ridderbusch, Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Carlos Kleiber (Opera d'Oro)