(An Activist Classroom performance review)
(All promotional images by Dahlia Katz)
I’m an Ibsen fanatic. I’m not sure when this happened! For a long time I hated stage realism and would happily tell anyone why the work of Bertolt Brecht, the man behind the “alienation effect”*, was politically superior to that of every one of the avant-garde realists who worked circa 1890 as Freud was storming Vienna, the first world war was still just a paper monster on the horizon, and every piece of theatre seemed to be set in a drawing-room near you.
But the avant-garde realists were not the straw men we often imagine; they weren’t boring conservatives whose goal was to trap us all in tidily-unified narratives that ultimately upheld the status quo. On the contrary: for men like (Henrik) Ibsen and (Anton) Chekhov, and women like (Elizabeth) Robins and (Cecily) Hamilton, the old, dour, bourgeois ways of 19th century Europe seemed increasingly unable to represent those intent on becoming “modern”. By which I mean: women (still without votes), minorities on the sidelines (servants, the underclasses, the workings classes, anyone not pristine-White), pretty much anybody not a dude and a banker. And their drama reflected that failure precisely by staging it at home, exactly where it lived.
(Ibsen, in caricature; Robins, rocking it fin-de-siècle style.)
And so I follow Henrik Ibsen around. I’ve seen dozens of productions of his work – Enemy of the People at the Young Vic in London, the Schaubühne in Berlin, the Tarragon in Toronto; Hedda Gabler in Germany and A Doll’s House all over the place; The Master Builder in New York. Every time, I’m reminded that his dramatic plan is to skewer not just the people in power – the people whose job it is to decide which human beings count, and which don’t – but to challenge the very idea of that kind of power, of the power to destroy a life over something as ultimately trivial as a letter, a bond, a manuscript, a medical report. In other words: the kind of power that organises and arranges a modern, information-age world.
Thus went I with enthusiasm and hope to see the talented and magnetic Cara Ricketts play Hedda Gabler in Jennifer Tarver’s Necessary Angel production at Canadian Stage in Toronto last Thursday. I’ll say up front that I did not love this production: in spots I really questioned its choices and even found them banal. But I also admired a number of the risks it took, and those are the things I’ll focus on in this review.
First, it bears mentioning – it really does – that Ricketts is a woman of colour cast as an iconic northern European character. Should casting be “colour blind”? Should we ignore the presumed racial heritage of characters, especially from the so-called classics, in order to open roles to actors of all visible backgrounds? ABSOLUTELY. And this performance demonstrates exactly why.
Ricketts is simply the most perfect Hedda I have ever seen: stunning, self-assured, yet vulnerable in unexpected moments (she really DOES feel badly about Aunt Julia’s hat! – or for a little moment, anyway). She carries in her body a powerful sense of strength, vibrancy, creativity, and intellect denied by the circumstances of her birth. Her Hedda Gabler is an artist, a thinker, a dreamer, a catastrophic overreacher – everything Friedrich Nietzsche would soliloquise in her were she a man. (Of course she’s angry that everyone keeps pointing out she’s pregnant! SHE knows that she is so much more than the baby in her belly!) As a non-White actor in the Canadian repertory system Ricketts has undoubtedly felt at times like the cards have been stacked against her in a similar way, as certain kinds of glass ceilings remain in place above her despite her incredible talent and skill on stage. In Ricketts’ performance here, Hedda’s chains – as they bind a smart and creative woman in a time unable to fathom such a creature – resonated for me with those that still coil around the most talented actors of colour in the world, generating a remarkable metatheatrical effect.
Second, and in perfect counterpoint to Ricketts, there’s Frank Cox-O’Connell as Tesman. Although he’s a regular at Toronto’s major “classics” house, Soulpepper, Cox-O’Connell has wowed me in a handful of devised and physical theatre pieces, including Ajax and Little Iliad, a festival hit in 2012. His charming George Tesman – Hedda’s mildly clueless academic husband, a folklorist and frump of epic proportions – leaps onto things, throws outerwear high up into the air (“into the grid!!” as my companion noted with glee), and offers a startling sense of a young man with at least as much verve as his gorgeous, privileged, and clever wife – though it is, before our eyes, in the process of being eroded into a life of material wealth accumulation, job-grubbing, and praying for the raises that will pay for the butlers, the Eames chairs, and the horses. Truly, I felt for and with Cox-O’Connell’s Tesman: he loves his work, he loves Hedda, he wants to write, to teach, and to take pleasure in small things. Somehow, though, he has ended up in an outsized estate on the edge of town, desperate to best his old rival for the current promotion so the truck can keep on rolling. Between the career leaps and the leaps into the air, there’s a palpable sense of something lost here – something perhaps we can all relate to, even and especially in 2016.
Finally, there’s the overall tone of this production. As I said to my companion at the half, I felt like I’d bought a ticket to Ibsen and had been plunged instead into Tennessee Williams! Carver is using Jon Robin Baitz’s 1999 adaptation and sets it in a vaguely 1950s-60s Euro-America; Ricketts wears her mid-century dresses with gorgeous ease, and Judge Brack, far from being a sinister and gruesome threat, is in fact her confidante and partner in schemes – one whose sexual ambiguity matches perfectly Hedda’s strange habitation of her femininity (and in a way old Tennessee would no doubt approve of). This Hedda felt, to me, like the true author of the narrative we were watching unfold on stage, with Brack as her trusted set director. Each time she made an odd move (trying to burn Thea’s hair; forcing Lövborg to drink despite his addiction; insisting on playing with pistols), that move struck me as powerfully subtextual. In this adaptation a great deal of Ibsen’s original symbolism has been cut away, but that only means that Hedda is not obviously, and clinically, a hysteric in Freudian terms; rather, she’s a creative director, an artist insistent on playing with coups de theatre as she constructs a better, more interesting version of the life she has fallen into while seeking respectability. Blanche Dubois, perhaps; or possibly Maggie The Cat. Either way: it’s perform or die, and Ricketts’ Hedda commands the stage like only a desperate diva can.
So what of the failures, the bad bits – the banal? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this production – except that it often plays things far too safe. The threads I’ve pulled in this review lie provocatively just below the surface for me in Tarver’s rendering of Hedda Gabler; I see them because I’ve been fortunate enough to have long experience of Ibsen’s work in multiple contexts, but I’m not sure they’d register for most audience members. Too often this production feels pretty rather than urgent, well dressed rather than truly intellectually challenging, and – perhaps – it’s even a bit afraid of what CanStage’s subscription audiences might think if stuff got a bit out of hand.
This is a totally understandable fear: we live now in a climate of artistic austerity, where major performance venues need to pay far too much attention to bottom lines, and in which middlebrow spectators are way, way too often pandered to (unfairly) rather than encouraged to learn, think, and grow their critical audience chops. Nobody benefits from this kind of punch-pulling – although of course it’s the safest way to end the run with enough money to do it all again next season. This, friends, is something we have in common – all too common – with the avant-garde realists of the late 19th century: industrial capitalism, and the wealthy complacency it bred, maps rather neatly onto the complacency of late-model finance capitalism and its interest in the arts for appearance’s sake (the “creative economy”). Sometimes, the best we can do is to cast incredible performers in imperfect productions, and hope for a spark.
Go see it!
*”Alienation Effect” is the conventional translation of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, the term that he used to describe a process whereby theatre can “make strange” (“fremde” = foreigner) things that are otherwise so familiar as to be invisible. One of my students, playing with her rudimentary German and using a shocking amount of creative license, once described it as the “wear strange clothes effect”. That’s my favourite transliteration of all time.