Review: Hedda Gabler (Necessary Angel/Canadian Stage)

Cara Ricketts as Hedda Gabler. Photo by Dahlia Katz.Necessary Angel and Canadian Stage present Ibsen’s classic play Hedda Gabler in Toronto

How far are we willing to go to fulfill our fantasies? Can we really shape our own lives in the face of a rigid, reputation-obsessed society? Necessary Angel and Canadian Stage tackle these questions in their good-but-not-great update of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, currently playing at the Berkeley Downstairs Theatre.

The play is centered around the eponymous Hedda Tesman née Gabler who just returned from a seemingly exciting honeymoon with her new husband, the academic George Tesman. The arrival of old friends and rivals forces Hedda to face the stifling reality and inadequacies of married life.

Director Jennifer Tarver’s take on the Ibsen classic seems to take its inspiration from the 1950s world of Turner Classic Movies. There were swelling orchestrations, glittering cocktail dresses (at least on Hedda), and even the sides of the stage were covered with black scrim so that it felt like we were watching the play in the standard cinematic widescreen format. I thought most of these references worked very well because, while Ibsen is often said to be the father of realism, there was often a melodramatic quality to his dialogue and plot structure that really suited the inspiration from the Hollywood Golden Age.

Ibsen’s plots are also known for relying on the revelation of secrets and concealed emotions for momentum and Tarver is especially good at showcasing the inner lives of the characters through her stage business. I could mostly figure out the power dynamics between characters just by looking at how they stand in relation to one another. As well, Tarver honours Ibsen’s tradition of using props as foreshadowing devices by having the actors draw our attention to them. I would often seen Hedda stroking or playing with objects that would prove to be important later: a hat, a manuscript, a pistol.

Furthermore, there was symbolism in the way certain types of characters were portrayed: The stimulant-craving characters of Hedda, Eilert Lovborg, and even sometimes Judge Brack, were performed with an extravagant flare that begged to be dramatically lit in black and white; whereas, the contrasting George Tesman and Thea Elvsted had a more earthier, modern manner.

I greatly admired Cara Ricketts’ performance as Hedda Gabler for never shying away from the more difficult attributes of her character. Her Hedda was gloriously selfish, manipulative, intelligent, and calculating, but also sympathetic, desperate, and magnetic. The only time Ricketts lost me was during Hedda’s more manic moments which felt a bit disingenuous. Frank Cox-O’Connell was also a stand-out, ably straddling the line between comic relief and heartbroken spouse as the awkward, bumbling George Tesman.

Unfortunately, the one area where the cinematic influence didn’t translate so well was in the lighting. Whereas with film, close-ups and huge screens allow the audience to see even in shadowy lighting, on stage I found this type of lighting annoying and distracting as it would sometimes almost completely obscure large parts of the actors’ faces.

It must be noted though that I say all the above as an Ibsen fan. My companion, who is unfamiliar with his works, compared his experience to watching an episode of Downton Abbey. The thing is, Ibsen so revolutionized theatre that many aspects of his style have become de rigueur and if you are unfamiliar with his contributions, his plays can seem quite ordinary. To that effect, we both agreed that while Hedda Gabler was a solid production — and featured an especially mesmerizing performance from Cara Ricketts — it wasn’t exactly a revelation.

Details:

  • Hedda Gabler is playing until February 7th at Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre (26 Berkeley Street).
  • Shows run all week, except for Mondays. Specific times and dates can be found here. This show is approximately 160 minutes long, including one intermission.
  • Ticket are $24 – $53 and are available online or by telephone at 416-368-3110. Tickets are also available for purchase in person at the Berkeley Street Theatre Main Ticket Office.
  • This performance contains smoking of herbal cigarettes, gun shots.

Photo of Cara Ricketts by Dahlia Katz.