John Barton, cofounder of the Royal Shakespeare Company (in 1960 with Peter Hall), directed several plays by Henrik Ibsen. The great Norwegian, Barton insisted, “is as much a comic writer as a tragic writer. Black comedy it may be, dark comedy and ironic. But I think one of the most brilliant things about Ibsen is his comic sense.”
But, Barton added, “It’s the kind of irony that matters.”
At the North Coast Rep, Anne Charlotte Hanes Harvey’s new translation of Hedda Gabler opts for the humor. The script, also developed by the cast, offers some insights. But the ironies are often more light than dark and sabotage sterner matters.
You could almost call it Ibsen’s Law: “A man must live in his own times, but he can try to make the times worth living in.” Negatives, in this rubric, are those who break the law in varying degrees.
So, where does Hedda fit in?
From afar, she’s legal. Six months ago she married Jorgen Tesman, a scholar whose book, The Textiles of Brabant during the Middle Ages, should earn him a professorship at the university. Her new home’s the former cabinet minister’s villa in a posh part of town. Plus, she might be pregnant and should fulfill a woman’s primary duty on the planet in the 1860s.
Okay, but her honeymoon was no honeymoon. Tesman just copied manuscripts in libraries (and textiles in the Middle Ages? That’s like writing the history of sand). He bought the pricey house assuming he’d win the professorship; even then, maintenance would be exorbitant. A meandering innocent, Tesman suffers from what George Bernard Shaw calls “the evil of ideals in a world of reality.”
Tesman has built his dream world on speculation. By the end of Act One, he learns that “one should never get caught up with fairy tales.”
Hedda, though for the most part illusion-free, still clings to a few. The daughter of a general, she longs for beauty and swashbuckling conquest. She sees the male-dominated world around her as a prison. And she wants to be the warden. Unlike her father and brave Thea Elvsted, who broke from a dismal marriage, Hedda lacks courage. She’s a self-imposed shut-in — we never see her leave the villa — and an emotional agoraphobic, since her fear of scandal forbids entertaining a desire. Some suggest that she finds desire itself abhorrent.
Everywhere she looks, Hedda sees breakthroughs. Her clumsy husband is on the rise (one hesitates to consider the scene at their bridal bower, though she might be pregnant as a result). Somehow Thea has guided Eilert Lovborg, notorious rake, back to the proper path. He’s quit drinking and whoring and has written a book, which she calls their “child.”
In effect, the world around Hedda’s become too sane. Everyone’s obeying Ibsen’s Law — and thus beyond her control. Now she has a single wish: “just once to have power over a human fate.”
Hedda the literary character has touches of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, though miserable, repressed Emma acts on her instincts, and even Lady Macbeth, who has enough control issues for a continent. A difference: Hedda’s world is just one building in a large Norwegian city. As the play progresses, the villa seems to shrink. The walls close in on her rage.
At the North Coast Rep, Marty Burnett’s fine set begins as a Victorian drawing room, an alcove stage rear, with a typical mix of that period’s stripes and patterns, but tasteful, not ersatz. By Act Three, drapes close and curtains draw. And come Act Four, Hedda’s territory resembles a prison, the stripes on the wall looking more and more like bars.
Mhari Sandoval’s almost two Heddas. Dressed in Elisa Benzoni’s semi-seductive apparel — a mite low-slung for Victorian times — she has the requisite nervousness and paces the stage like a caged tiger at feeding time. But she’s also stagey and often her moves feel calculated and melodramatic. These choices undercut her sympathy, and may explain why Hedda evokes laughter at inappropriate times.
The cast often crosses the line between Ibsen and comedy. Ray Chambers as suave Judge Brack walks it best: Jekyll on the surface, Hyde just below. Bruce Turk’s Tesman’s a comic figure, but does he need to catch his thumb in a valise?
The adaptation gives Lovborg (Richard Baird, red-faced, intense) and Thea (Mel House, too flat and milquetoast) a contemporary rinse. Thanks to her nurturing, Lovborg is in “recovery” (in the contemporary sense). He’s been clean and sober for some time. One of the most dramatic scenes comes when Hedda tempts Lovborg with a glass of rum punch. One drink would be too many, then a million too few. Sandoval and Baird vie in a genuine contest of wills.
That’s one of the few scenes uninfected with comedic intrusions. Some of the jokes are funny, but they stand out from the story as irony writ large. With this cast and this playwright, more subtle ironies, the kind Barton wanted, would serve the play far better than a restless urge to entertain.
Hedda Gabler, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Anne Charlotte Hanes Harvey and the North Coast Rep cast
Playing through June 26: Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. northcoastrep.org