Even before playing her in “The Aviator,” the luminous Cate Blanchett was compared to Katharine Hepburn. With her patrician air, sardonic wit and fiercely independent demeanor, Hepburn would seem an intriguing fit for Ibsen’s dangerously bored trophy wife in “Hedda Gabler,” clawing at the claustrophobic walls of bourgeois conventionality. But Hepburn-meets-Bette Davis-via-Glenn Close? That’s an odder choice. In Sydney Theater Company’s disconcertingly tragicomic take on the 1890 classic, arriving at BAM for a sold-out four-week run, director Robyn Nevin and adaptor Andrew Upton make one odd choice after another.
Upton (Blanchett’s husband) has stripped back and subtly contemporized the text, its language rendered more colloquial in the relaxed delivery of the Australian cast. But Nevin approaches the work as if it’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” rewritten by Joe Orton. Her inconsistent direction tosses aside subtlety, swinging between a broad, at times almost campy strain and arch high drama that borders on soap opera, complete with stormy interstitial music. The entry of the doomed Ejlert Lovborg (Aden Young) is turned into a pre-intermission cliffhanger worthy of “As the World Turns” — eyes lock, fade to black.
The approach might be playful and unconstrained rather than the fusty reverence that can make Ibsen’s plays seem like routine work in lesser productions. But it muffles the play’s dark spirit, watering down its tragic sourness, its deep-in-the-bones despair and stifling dissatisfaction.
There have probably been few more stylish Heddas than the willowy Blanchett, and it’s easy to see why three different men would each want to make his claim on her. Model-thin and dressed to dazzle in costumer Kristian Fredrikson’s sleek gowns, she wears her scorn and superiority like couture.
In the play’s opening seconds, Blanchett appears in semi-darkness, sitting bolt upright with a start and then dashing from the room. When she returns to the stage, there’s barely a moment this febrile creature is not in motion. Striding about the room, gesticulating, ceaselessly rearranging cushions, fussing with furniture in the supposed dream house that she loathes, she’s the literal embodiment of bristling agitation. (Fiona Crombie’s set is a lonely, cheerless room, rendered oppressive by heavy black drapes covering a glassed-in terrace flooded with jaundiced light.)
What Blanchett isn’t is vulnerable in any way. Of course, Hedda Gabler is a famously difficult character whose self-destructive choices inevitably keep her at a certain remove from the audience. Theatergoers have scratched their heads for more than a century over the perverse whim that made this untamable colt enter into marriage with tiresome academic Jorgen Tessman. And that question looms louder than ever with Anthony Weigh playing the role as a doughy bore.
But there needs to be something for an audience to identify or at least sympathize with in Hedda. To cite two recent interpreters, Elizabeth Marvel, in Ivo van Hove’s audacious 2004 New York Theater Workshop staging, and Eve Best, in Richard Eyre’s sober London production last year, brought differing degrees of ferocity and passion to Hedda without losing sight of the tragedy of her self-entrapment. Blanchett’s brittle, mannered turn shuts out pathos.
“What in God’s name will I do with myself, then?” asks Hedda of her wily friend Judge Brack (a quietly louche, cocky Hugo Weaving). “There’s nowhere more isolating than in the middle of someone else’s life.” Those thoughts should be underscored by the bruising reality of Hedda in a tight corner, unprepared for how “total” marriage is; here they seem merely like the flippant self-pity of a high-maintenance brat. By playing up the mischief and malice in Hedda’s manipulative behavior, there’s less the sense of an unhappy woman struggling to avoid suffocation than of a disdainful, unrepentant bitch toying with other people’s fates for sport.
The glimmers of genuine sorrow and pain in the production come from the impassioned, brooding Lovborg of Young, and from Justine Clarke’s feckless but well-meaning Thea. There’s no comparable depth in Blanchett’s magnetic but self-aggrandizing performance. She invites so much snarky complicity that, when the mood darkens and the noose Hedda has created for herself tightens in the second act, we feel almost nothing for her.