APRIL 2023 | Volume 226
This production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler comes with the kind of buzz not usually associated with United Players, considered a “community theatre” but in reality one of the only companies in the Vancouver region doing classical and modern classic plays, and doing most as well as the full-Equity theatres.
The buzz arises from anew translation and adaptation by UBC emeritus professor and renowned Ibsen scholar Errol Durbach, who has previously adapted Shakespeare for Bard on the Beach, and direction by Moya O’Connell, a nationally prominent Vancouver-trained actress who has played lead roles at Bard and the title role ofHedda at the Shaw Festival.
The play itself retains its currency, one of the few examples of late-19th century realism to be consistently remounted on contemporary stages. As the eloquent program notes from O’Connell and UP artistic director Sarah Rodgers point out, Hedda is one of the greatest female roles in modern theatre, “complicated and hungry-hearted,” desperate and self-destructive.
The buzz is fully warranted. Durbach’s translation strips much of the dross from a script that can often sound old-fashioned in a Victorian English sort of way.O’Connell gives us a production quaking with vitality, not just explosive but full of explosions.
Her casting is remarkable. Ayush Chhabra plays Hedda’s scholar husband Tesmanas not simply dull but giddy like a naïve kid, full of optimism and wonder. O’Connell makes no effort to mask Chhabra’s South Asian accent or the rhetorical “ja” with which he ends every statement. It’s an endearing portrayal that at the same time lets us understand how Tesman bores Hedda nearly to death—he and his old aunts and “this shabby bourgeois existence I’ve fallen into” that make her feel ridiculous.
Hayley Sullivan as Hedda is a revelation. Lean and hungry, she carries her negativity around with her like a physical weight and is unspeakably mean to Tesman and his Aunt Julle (Nicky Anderton), to poor Thea Elvsted (radiant Lola Claire), whose courage to leave her husband makes Hedda bitterly jealous, and ultimately to alcoholic genius author EjlertLovborg (Victor Ayala), sharing whose life had been the highlight of Hedda’s until her “cowardice” left her bereft.
Every so often Sullivan shows us Hedda’s subtext, her demons, in moments so powerful they feel visceral. There’s a scene in the first act where she reveals how something suddenly comes over her to make her act out, something she can’t help or explain. Sullivan’s line readings are brilliant and her eyes and face utterly haunted. Later, when Hedda admits how badly she wants courage and power—and how much she despises the notion of motherhood—Sullivan lets her fear and frustration pour out like poison.
Nick Rempel plays Judge Brack, who tries to blackmail Hedda into extramarital sex, with a kind of manic sleaze as Hedda’s grand strategies backfire on her one after another towards the end: Tesman and Thea getting together to reconstruct Lovborg’s book, and Lovborg himself ending his life in the most sordid, disappointing way. Hedda’s own ending is pre-ordained.
Emily Dotson’s drawing room set and Julie White’s period costumes clearly establish the scene. But Torquil Campbell’s piercing, sometimes howling sound design lifts the play into another dimension. Ditto for the discordant music Hedda pounds out on the upstage piano, expressing her rage, her fear, her entrapment in a world, body and mind that can ultimately allow her to express her courage and power only in one awful way.Great production of a great play. Don’t miss it.
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