Hysterical Hedda Strips Ibsen Without the Ibsen

I had hopes for Ivo van Hove’s radical new production of Hedda Gabler with the acclaimed Elizabeth Marvel as Hedda. The first sight of the airy, modernist white set with its minimalist furniture, small TV in a corner, buckets of flowers, a stray shoe, even a video intercom, dynamited Ibsen’s traditional drawing room.

And there was Hedda at the piano before the action began—a bored doodler in discordancy banging out the same grating notes over and over again. As we sat a while waiting for the actual play to begin, the sound and the image seemed irritatingly apt: Hedda could be the first tragic heroine in dramatic history whose calling card is boredom.

If they’re going to revive Hedda Gabler again—if we’re going to see it again—how can we be compelled to experience it with fresh eyes? Mr. van Hove has at least set out to excavate the frequently produced play from its own stifling conventions. But the fatal flaw in his simplistic, contemporary take on the Ibsen classic is that he’s lost Ibsen.

Take that eye-catching modernist set. Hedda’s dream-house within Ibsen’s play is important. The house represents the spoils of a foolish marriage. Hedda Gabler is a play about a neurotic Victorian woman who has thrown her life away on bourgeois respectability, whereas Mr. van Hove’s version is about a neurotic modern woman who’s thrown her life away on downtown chic.

The system of values is very different. Why does Ms. Marvel wear a flimsy little pink slip more or less throughout the action? It’s said—if you can believe it—that this is a Hedda “stripped down,” or psychologically “exposed” like the empty echoing loft that “represents” the interior landscape of her mind. And to that I say, spinach.

This is a Hedda who flashes her knickers. The director has uncorseted the Victorian Hedda, obviously—but to what end? The tragically unevolved Hedda is many contradictory things, but a chick isn’t one of them. Ibsen’s Hedda is a woman who longs to defy convention, but lacks the courage. She’s a free spirit manqué, a caustic egotist, cruel and untrustworthy. But Ms. Marvel’s loose, sexy image of her is plain wrong.

Ibsen’s Hedda is a voyeur who’s disgusted by sex. Pregnancy repels her. She denies her own sexuality. She rejects the passionate love of Lovborg for the dry marriage with the weak Tesman. Crucially, she despises Lovborg’s freedom. Sex isn’t what Hedda wants, but ownership.

That Hedda Gabler is a play about repression is obvious to all. But Mr. van Hove makes the subtext all too obvious and facile. In fact, the new production has no subtext. All nuance is gone, and with it, Hedda’s emotional sophistication and mystery. She’s petulant, not tragic. She’s a Hedda Gabler reduced to a temper tantrum.

She stomps her feet, tears her hair out, rolls on the floor, smashes flowers to bits, staples the dead ones to the walls and also bangs her head against the wall. To capture other mood swings, she might be speaking in a kind of zonky drone and then she’ll SUDDENLY START TO SCREAM AT THE TOP OF HER VOICE LIKE THIS before hurling herself on the sofa to beat the sofa up like a big spoilt baba.

Why does everyone else in the cast act in this unnatural way, too? Because they’re all NEUROTIC. AND FUCK YOU. It’s meant to be a new way of acting “reality”—or capturing real, live, spontaneous feelings onstage. Even the usually anonymous maid, Berte, has hysterics. Why? YOU THINK IT’S EASY BEING A MAID? YOU THINK IT’S EASY! WHO DO YOU THINK UNSTAPLES THE DEAD FLOWERS FROM THE WALLS, EH? WHO DO YOU THINK CLEANS UP THE MESS?

There are other lapses. Tesman and Lovborg are virtually interchangeable in their black suits and Ethan Hawke look. Ibsen’s script—translated by Christopher Hampton—has been kept intact. But the histrionic modernity of the downtown production jars with the bourgeois social politesse of “Wouldn’t you like to go in and have a drop of cold punch?”

By the time Judge Brack—upright, sinister, blackmailing Brack—dribbled a can of V-8 juice over the head and body of passive Hedda, we got the point. HE HAS HER UNDER CONTROL. DA JUDGE HAS THE HOTS. But some things are best left ambiguously suggested, and Ibsen’s subtext was written, not hidden. Mr. van Hove’s loud spin on Hedda Gabler has reduced the great play to a simplistic melodrama of self-absorption and instant desire—a tale for superficial times.

Weepy Othello Meets Belching Iago

Othello is staged so frequently it’s in danger of becoming Twelfth Night. It’s troubling to report how disappointed I was by Cheek by Jowl’s new Othello at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I’ve come to expect the very best from the British director Declan Donnellan and his designer, Nick Ormerod. But when they go wrong, they really go wrong.

I’m afraid they’ve staged an orthodox, modern-dress Othello that brings nothing fresh to the table. It’s an imaginatively bankrupt production. Mr. Omerod’s design work is usually an unostentatious delight, but here he offers us only the deadening stage picture of five coffins in space. The coffins are occasionally used for other purposes—a table, a bed. But they’re an arbitrary non-concept. They convey no sense of place, court or country, offer no atmosphere of Venetian splendor or relief. They’re dead to the eye, deadening the action.

Though Othello and others will surely die, the coffins are a bewilderingly bad choice among others. The British upper classes have always been traditionally fond of spanking. But to have a self-hating Cassio spanked by a hookerette version of Bianca in leather is a very peculiar choice. To have her spank him with Othello’s missing handkerchief is surely a bridge too far.

The Othello of Nonso Anozie is a pussycat, too doughy and soft, given to staggering tearfully round the stage. The more magnetic the Othello, the more tragic the fall. But there’s no power or stature to this baby-face general. He’s an Othello who can’t believe his luck that he got the girl in the first place.

Othello isn’t too difficult. It’s about sex and the green-eyed monster. Virgin white girl runs off with black man. If she could betray her beloved father, who else? If she could sleep with black Othello, who else?

But this shopgirl Desdemona—a Venetian princess, after all—could be Othello’s younger sister, until at the close they die clumsily on a kiss. There’s no erotic connection between them. At one point, Caroline Martin as Desdemona fleetingly tickled Othello’s tummy. I put it down to what Brecht called “an involuntary gesture”: The unconscious movement reveals the center of the actor’s interpretation. But much later, in the midst of all the Sturm und Drang, Mr. Anozie’s Othello suddenly tickled the tum of Desdemona. It was fleeting, too, but playful affection doesn’t make good sexual electricity.

The play can survive without a great Othello; but without a great Iago it’s sunk. Iago takes the play. Every event turns on his “motiveless malignity.” The last Iago I saw touched greatness. Anthony Cochrane’s genius was that he made evil appear reasonable. But so broad is the leering Iago of Jonny Phillips here that he makes evil a cartoon. He literally belches—belching out the hateful spleen and fire, like a dragon, we assume.

He’s an Iago who could never be mistaken for honest. A working-class Iago is right, but G.B. Shaw’s “word-music” is absent. Shouting isn’t passion. Except for the fine Emilia of Jaye Griffiths, this is a flat, unpoetic reading of Othello. Well, I’ve written in the past about director Mr. Donnellan and Cheek by Jowl that they’re so good I’d forgive them anything. “I do perceive here a divided duty,” as Desdemona puts it.

Let’s forgive this aberrant Othello just the same, knowing how much better it could have been. Hysterical Hedda Strips Ibsen Without the Ibsen