Conceptually, Thomas Ostermeier’s modern-dress production of “Hedda Gabler” for the Berlin-based Schaubuhne promises danger and excitement. This it delivers by transforming Ibsen’s heroine from an intellectually gifted woman trapped by the bourgeois conventions of her 19th-century masculine society into a predatory creature of the 21st-century who manipulates men for sheer spite. But the modernity of Ostermeier’s vision also promises transparency on the issue of how smart women operate in a hostile environment — and on this point the production is anything but forthcoming.
Everything about Jan Pappelbaum’s striking Euro-chic set — an architectural wonder of slick surfaces, clear glass and overhead mirrors — indicates that subterfuge will be stripped away and all shameful secrets bared. Try as she might, Hedda can’t hide from anyone, not even from herself, on this starkly exposed revolving set with its open walls and minimalist furnishings.
The problem is, Hedda doesn’t have much character to hide. Plucked out of her 19th-century context and given the freedoms of any modern woman, she lacks the social restrictions that made Ibsen’s original heroine so fascinating. And unlike the modern-day Nora of Ostermeier’s 2004 production of “A Doll’s House,” she does not suffer from the tyrannical domestic restraints imposed by a stupid, overbearing husband.
Katharina Schuttler couldn’t be more subtle about Hedda’s machinations to advance her dim-witted husband’s academic career over his more gifted rival. Thin as a wraith but tough as nails, this mesmerizing actress brings an almost feral intensity to the character’s cruel designs on members of her circle. But given the options open to a contemporary woman, her heartlessness comes across as motiveless malignancy.
Thrust into a contempo context, the literary men in Hedda’s life wear smart clothes and get to play with sleek computers instead of bulky manuscripts. But these masters of their bourgeois universe suffer in other ways. Deprived of the 19th-century social privileges that would have blinded them to Hedda’s subtle wiles, they just seem uncommonly stupid.