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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 485-487

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Performance Review

Hedda Gabler


Hedda Gabler. By Henrik Ibsen. Adapted by Jon Robin Baitz. Ambassador Theatre, New York City. 5 October 2001.

The much touted Nicholas Martin's Hedda Gabler, with Kate Burton as Hedda, reached Broadway after engagements at the Bay Street Theatre of Sag Harbor (on Long Island), the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. An exuberant account of Burton's Boston performance by the chief drama critic of the New YorkTimes, Ben Brantley, led to the Broadway run. Brantley's chief praise was that Burton's performance made Ibsen's monster into a human being.

Neither of these two terms monster and human being is helpful in judging Burton's performance. The tired old reading of Hedda as a monster, debunked by Henry James over a hundred years ago, is no longer in the critical running, and if actresses like Elizabeth Robins, Eleanora Duse, and, in our own time, Maggie Smith have given landmark Heddas, it was not as monsters or even femmes fatales. Nor does Kate Burton tone down Hedda's larger-than-life qualities by humanizing her, for Burton's Hedda is not a person but a cliché: the bitchy, dissatisfied wife. Burton captures Hedda's surface personality well enough—her witty cruelty and her essential boredom—but not the hidden inner life that makes great actresses long to play her: her desperation, her romantic longings, and her self-loathing. Burton's Hedda shows only the part of Hedda that the Tesmans and Brack see, and without the other part, the significant one, which we are supposed to be made to see, the dramatic irony from which the play derives its power is missing. Kate Burton's trivial Hedda is a woman Ibsen would never have bothered with.

A large part of Burton's Hedda must be blamed on the direction. Martin has turned Ibsen's tragedy of entrapment and cowardice into the strange hybrid of a drawing room comedy featuring a "star" and a melodrama. Burton's entrance, as she sweeps on stage in a pale pink peignoir, tea-cup in hand, causes knee-jerk applause. Ibsen's symbolic setting—an autumn heavy with dead leaves and Hedda's horror of her pregnancy—is now a spring day. Alexander Dodge's striking, elegant turquoise and beige setting and Kevin Adams's gorgeous pastel lighting, very flattering to Burton, could have been put to better use in a revival of Noel Coward. Burton gets hearty laughs by treating her husband Tesman (Michael Emerson) with a heavy, laid-on sarcasm. Clued in, the Broadway audience now gleefully laughs in all the wrong places, even when Hedda gives Løvborg (David Lansbury) the pistol. Needless to say, having pert, controlled Hedda grab Løvborg's crotch is preposterous; why would she bother? Between Burton's perky Hedda and the comic tone, the play's violent moments—Hedda's burning Løvborg's manuscript, her cruelty toward Thea, and, most of all, her suicide—come off as inexplicable melodrama. "Why did she kill herself?" I heard perplexed audience members asking each other as they left the theatre.

Of the supporting cast, Harris Yullin, much too old for Judge Brack, plays the suave seducer as a [End Page 485] [Begin Page 487] genial old friend rather than a menacing blackmailer, which makes Hedda's suicide even more unconvincing. Jennifer Van Dyck as Thea Elvsted, looking like a Salvation Army worker, is earnestness personified, playing only one aspect of the courageous Thea, and Angela Thornton and Maria Cellario give bland, uninteresting performances of the do-gooder Aunt Julie and the family retainer Berta. David Lansbury, on the other hand, is very credible as the demonic, self-destructive Løvborg. And Michael Emerson, who recently triumphed as Oscar Wilde in Moisés Kaufman's Gross Indecency, is a superb Tesman, one of the best of the over fifty Tesmans I have seen in the United States and abroad over the past twenty years. Emerson understands that the hypocritical Tesman's naiveté and blandness screen a driving ambition...


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