May 2005

Hedda Gabler
Judith Thompson's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Masterpiece • Directed by Ross Manson
May 22 – June 12, 2005 Buddies in Bad Times Theatre Toronto
It's horrible when you catch an actor acting. You feel embarrassed. You've been staring at a mere bag of tricks.

It's worse when a cast of celebrated stage actors — such as Yanna McIntosh, Tom McCamus, Tanja Jacobs, Alon Nashman, Nigel Shawn Williams, Cynthia Ashperger and Ann Baggley — cannot, under the direction of Ross Manson, engage us on an emotional level in this Judith Thompson adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's landmark play, Hedda Gabler.

The character of Hedda Gabler is haughty, manipulative, and contemptuous toward life; alternately, she's a victim of boredom and her own lack of imagination, but as played by Yanna McIntosh, she mostly projects a single 'attitude' of supreme egotism, a viewpoint rather than a living sequence of changing thoughts and emotions.

It deepens.

With a glaring white-on-white set, director Manson clearly means to stylize a naturalistic play. In this white room, the residence of Hedda Gabler and husband George Tesman, the women are dressed in solid colours: Hedda Gabler (Yanna McIntosh) is in a solid red dress, Aunt Juliana (Tanya Jacobs), Thea Elvsted (Ann Baggley) and the maid, Berthe (Cynthia Ashperger) are in dark blues and blacks while the men, with the exception of Eilert Lovborg (Tom McCamus), are in black and white formal wear.

Of course it makes perfect sense that Tom McCamus should be dressed as a tweedy writer/philosopher because his gifted character, Lovborg, has just written a doomsday book which "pronounces the present age corrupt, and predicts a monstrous future." In the public world of ideas, Lovborg is on the verge of success and acclaim; he's a thinker who stands out from the crowd; and he is an admirer of Hedda.

Photo of Yanna McIntosh by John Lauener
But finally, it is Hedda who burns Lovborg's important book and therefore denies its message to society. Here we see the general destructiveness of Hedda, and we further see hints of her propensity for self-destruction.

Self-destruction is, in many ways, the true theme of Hedda Gabler, and all its characters are good at it. Even innocent characters like Aunt Juliana, played by Tanja Jacobs, seem relentless in their pursuit of a positive way of looking at life. They just keep going and going, but Jacobs' bug-eyed and intentionally comic portrayal of the aunt made for uncomfortable viewing, because we caught her acting.

In line with a tendency to indicate their feelings, most of the cast briskly spoke their lines with vague 'proper English accents', and in the case of Alon Nashman as George Tesman and Nigel Shawn Williams as Judge Brant, with their 'upper class' manly banter, they frequently fell into what's known in the trade as, 'William Shatner acting'. In fact, much of the dialogue in Hedda Gabler was rapidly tossed back and forth like in a sit-com, which only added to the confusion as some of us thought we had come to see a drama.

But to be fair, and truly appreciative, we feel that Tom McCamus was the standout because of his relaxed and in-the-moment approach to acting. In a naturalistic play, McCamus's portrayal definitely made sense. We could see a man living out his life in front of us. It is also to Ann Baggley's credit that her Thea Elvsted is played as a sympathetic and caring character, and not as a mere caricature for comic relief.

Director Ross Manson is clearly aiming for contemporary relevance, so he has given us a Hedda Gabler which has a highly stylized set; and he asked playwright Judith Thompson to re-imagine and rewrite a second half which takes place in Toronto in 2005, but for all of this theorizing and planning, he's failed to capture our attention.

But I'm afraid this is a true story. We spent an uncomfortable evening, catching actors acting.

We welcome your comments and feedback
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Report by David Fujino
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for The Live Music Report

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