‘No vine leaves? Whatever.’

Belvoir, July 8

ADENA Jacobs’s production of Hedda Gabler is perverse not for her casting of a man as Hedda – it’s an intriguing starting point – but for the failure to make anything much of it. Belvoir’s Hedda Gabler is weightless to quite a marvellous degree.

Jacobs writes in her adaptor and director’s note: “A contemporary Hedda is not trapped by the same circumstances or social conventions which plagued women a century ago. At any moment she could get up and leave. Why doesn’t she?” Good question, and one to which this production has no answer.

Ash Flanders with Tim Walter (Tesman), rear. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Ash Flanders as Hedda with Tim Walter (Tesman), rear. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Condensed to a vigorously pruned 90-minute piece, Jacobs’s adaptation places Hedda (Ash Flanders) in Los Angeles in the present day. Dayna Morrissey’s set evokes a glossy, soulless home with lots of glass, although it appears to have been designed for a theatre other than Belvoir’s Upstairs space. It is far from ideal, although successfully suggests well-heeled emptiness. There’s a pool for Hedda to lounge by and she spends much of the time in a swimsuit. Her apathy is palpable, and if Hedda Gabler were a play about a vacuous woman who is bored out of her skull it would be job done.

Quite a lot of Ibsen is still there from a plot perspective, although it’s like hearing a familiar song in a different language. You can hear the words but they don’t make much sense in the context or are thrown into a new light by it. There’s no suggestion in performance of Hedda’s barely contained rage or, oddly given the casting, her exceptionalism. Her few off-hand minutes of playing a violent video game must suffice to indicate the former; for the latter, a silent tableau shows us more precisely what we can already see: Flanders is, for the purposes of this production, of fluid gender. What this means is unexplored. That the idea exists is all we are given.

Ennui reigns so it makes internal sense that some of Jacobs’s 21st century equivalences to Ibsen feel exhausted. The dominating portrait of Hedda’s father, for instance, is banally turned into a big car. It is, presumably, meant to be a symbol of male power and virility – a stale idea -and takes up an awful lot of stage real estate to little effect. (The fuzzily amplified scene that takes place within the car is woeful.) Particularly diluted is the rendering of Hedda’s cruelty towards Aunt Julie. In Ibsen she pretends Julie’s new hat belongs to the servant; Jacobs translates this as Julie’s having left a can of drink on the car. The moment passes swiftly and leaves no trace.

Most crucially, Ash Flanders drifts through and around the action in a cocoon of disconnectedness. This chilly space at the centre of things makes it difficult to understand what Jacobs wants Flanders to bring to Hedda when the actor gives off so little. (The putting on and taking off of a wig a couple of times has the air of being rather meaningful but isn’t.)

Would this Hedda kill herself because Brack – Marcus Graham, definitely best in class here – threatens the General’s daughter with a touch of scandal? Not this cool cucumber. When Hedda hears of the manner of Lovborg’s death I would not have been surprised to hear her say: “No vine leaves? Whatever.”

By virtue of his gender Flanders can’t help but remind one of Hedda’s otherness, or at least what we are supposed to recognise as her otherness, but the audience is left to do a lot of intellectual gymnastics to make the performance and the production resonate. The production is arid and uninvolving because this Hedda, far from existing restlessly beyond the boundaries of the society she finds herself in, is exactly like everyone else: as small and shallow as the pool in Morrissey’s set.

Hedda Gabler runs until August 3.

Goodnight, sweet prince

Hamlet, change of cast, Belvoir, Sydney, November 26

THEATRE critics don’t often revisit a production. They go to the opening, write, and move on. They must. Other plays, other companies relentlessly crowd the diary and then the season is over and the chance disappears. The critic has to make judgments swiftly, and very possibly on a performance that is not as good as it will become. But that’s the way it works. The review is a snapshot of that one occasion.

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir's Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir’s Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

By and large that’s fine. Few productions, within the four to six weeks of their run, will alter so fundamentally that another viewing will change critical opinion. It also must be remembered that critical opinion isn’t a singular, unified beast. It’s a collection of disparate views, often wildly differing.

Only infrequently, therefore, does a production make an ironclad case for being seen again. Simon Stone’s Hamlet for Belvoir came into this category through chance. The production opened on October 12 with Toby Schmitz playing the prince of Denmark, but he was released when shooting on a US TV series, Black Sails, in which he is involved, was brought forward. (Black Sails is described as a prequel of sorts to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.) Series one doesn’t premiere until January 25 but early buzz was so good a second series was commissioned by cable channel Starz and it started filming this month.

One can’t help thinking of when Geoffrey Rush withdrew from Belvoir’s 2003 50th anniversary production of Waiting for Godot to take a role in some pirate film. Yes, that would be Pirates of the Caribbean. That went pretty well for Rush. You wouldn’t want to stand in the way of an opportunity like that. But Godot hadn’t yet opened and John Gaden nobly stepped into the breach.

In the case of Hamlet Schmitz would need to leave two weeks before the scheduled closing date.

Quite a challenging situation, you would think, having to replace such a charismatic leading man, and in Hamlet to boot. Belvoir, however, hit the jackpot with the availability and willingness of Ewen Leslie to step in. Not only is Leslie one of the finest stage actors of his generation, he had played Hamlet in Melbourne in 2011, although this assignment was a very different one. Leslie would have to forget huge swaths of text and come to grips with a re-ordering of that which remained.

Stone’s Hamlet isn’t one for everyone, particularly those who don’t know the play, and while I would suggest this production isn’t one for the ages, its explosive energy and intensity of purpose make riveting theatre. Hamlet has been ruthlessly pared back – take out the interval and there’s not much more than two hours of drama – and is presented in black and white. This is literally so in design terms, with the first half set (such as it is; a wall of curtains and row of bog-standard chairs) a study in black and the second act performed in a bright white box in which only the grand piano from Act I remains. The first setting acts as a visual equivalent to the dark deeds that unhinge Hamlet and the second provides a bright canvas for all that blood. Grief and death are Stone’s preoccupations and he goes at them pell-mell.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously said of Edmund Kean that seeing him act was “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”. It wasn’t entirely the compliment it sounds. The meaning, it seems, is that with Kean you didn’t get the whole picture. Nevertheless, that wonderful phrase conveys the crackle and electricity of performance and could justifiably be used to describe this Hamlet and its strictly limited palette. The wonderful Nathan Lovejoy gets to be both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Anthony Phelan is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and in one of the production’s most touching moments is assigned Horatio’s beautiful words, “Goodnight, sweet prince”; an audacious puppet show economically replaces the travelling players; and so on.

All these things were immediately legible on a first viewing. The second viewing brought into sharper focus the production’s intimacy and complicity with its audience. The auditorium lights are often high and several times Hamlet crosses the invisible barrier between stage and seating. Even if not physically doing that, he makes searching eye contact. The idea of a soliloquy as ideas spoken aloud is transformed into a feeling of being inside Hamlet’s head as he tries to think things through. Leslie is particularly direct and powerful in this. At the performance I saw, when he demanded, “Am I a coward?”, you could feel people restraining themselves from answering. Thus, when the final scene is filled with blood-soaked characters, some of them are, strictly speaking, not yet dead. But as the duel scene rapidly unfolds, it is not unreasonable to apprehend these last moments as flickers of Hamlet’s dying thoughts. He sees dead people and so do we.

Stone’s production is not in essence changed by the change of cast, but naturally there are differences between Schmitz and Leslie. Schmitz was witty and unpredictable, wearing his rage and grief like banners of war in high-definition colours. Even when he was wracked with sobs there was the sense he was very aware of his effect and of how events may unfold. Leslie’s torment is no less overtly expressed yet feels more private. Deep thinking and even deeper desolation are his lot.

While on the subject of spellbinding performances, the weekend brings not only the last chance to see Hamlet, but also Marshall Napier in All My Sons at the new Eternity Playhouse for Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Napier is towering in a very fine, absolutely traditional staging of Arthur Miller’s domestic tragedy. There’s happily a little more time to see Paul Blackwell in John Doyle’s Vere (Faith) for Sydney Theatre Company. Blackwell is devastating as a physicist falling into the black hole of dementia.

Marshal Napier and Toni Scanlan in All My Sons. Photo: Brett Boardman

Marshal Napier and Toni Scanlan in All My Sons. Photo: Brett Boardman

Waiting for Godot runs until December 21, with as thrilling a quartet of performances as you could find anywhere from Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins. In the bewilderingly under-appreciated Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – by audiences, that is; the crits were the kind you’d write for yourself but houses have been small – Tony Sheldon and Matt Hetherington are a riot.

What of roles for women, we ask? Things are a bit thin on the ground at the moment, although Harriet Dyer is harrowing in Machinal at Sydney Theatre Company and Toni Scanlan magnificent as Kate Keller in All My Sons.

Like Hamlet, All My Sons had a key cast change during the run when Meredith Penman could do only a couple of performances as Anne due to another commitment. I didn’t see the well-reviewed Penman but her replacement, Anna Houston, was superb.

Remember how a couple of years ago there was a hoo-ha about lack of opportunities for female directors in theatre? That situation seems to have shifted appreciably, which is good. But what about towering roles for women. Well, this year we’ve had The Maids for Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, and Joanna Murray-Smith’s Fury for Sarah Peirse, and newcomer Taylor Ferguson was given the title role in Miss Julie, although I found the production misbegotten.

I thought the unforgettable women of The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe were quite right when they made a joke about how they should have been in Belvoir’s Upstairs theatre instead of the tiny Downstairs space. But they weren’t.

As for next year, well, Sydney will see a man playing Hedda Gabler – Ash Flanders at Belvoir. But he will be directed by a woman, Adena Jacobs.

Hamlet and All My Sons end December 1. Vere (Faith) and Machinal end December 7. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels closes December 8. Waiting for Godot ends December 21.