Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review: Hedda Gabler, The Pillars of the Community, and The Wild Duck, by Henrik Ibsen

It was somewhat fortuitous this month that I began reading a collection of Henrik Ibsen plays (picked up for 50 cents at a street-side yard sale in our neighbourhood last summer) as my wife and I had tickets to Canadian Stage’s production of Hedda Gabler going right now. I was hitherto unschooled in the works of this great Norwegian playwright – somehow Ibsen just never landed on my radar – and Hedda Gabler was a fabulous place to start.

Engrossing, comic, and tightly constructed, the play is an exploration of willful ignorance, career anxiety, and the manipulations of the soul. Hedda and her new husband, the recently graduated PhD student, Jorgen Tesmen, have just returned home after a luxuriating five-month honeymoon abroad. They move in to what Tesmen assumes is his bride’s dream house, and prepare themselves for Tesmen’s interview at a local university where he is all but presumed to land a position that has just opened up. But we soon learn that there is more to their marriage than first meets the eye: Hedda is deeply unsatisfied with life and looks for ways to shake herself free of her melancholic, housewife boredom.

The situation takes a turn when the couple finds out that a rival of Tesmen’s, a ne’er do well named Ejlert Lovborg, has returned to town and has just published a well-received book in the same area of scholarship as Tesmen’s. Now there is competition for the role at the university, and Hedda, driven by an unconscionable desire to cause harm to those around her - and her own complicated past with this rival - sets in motion a plan to stop Lovborg. Her wayward accomplice is a local judge named Brack, who is manipulating the situation from behind the scenes. Ultimately, the plan that Hedda launches backfires against her and she must now face the life that cannot be hers. With a nod to that famous Chekhovian maxim, she makes her ultimate decision.

The play does a tremendous job of examining Hedda’s psychopathy, her need to control the fates of those around her, to destroy lives at her whim so that her own life may have some meaning. The Can Stage production takes a gamble by moving the play out of its standard timeframe (the late 19th century) and into the 1950s. But the new adaption works, and actor Cara Ricketts is stellar as Hedda. Her longing and anguish is nearly palpable on the stage, to the point that we come extremely close to feeling something like sympathy for this play’s titular character.

Reading The Pillars of the Community and The Wild Duck alongside Hedda Gabler reinforced what are obviously a number of Ibsen’s key themes. Pillars looks at the length a man in power will go to maintain his status in and influence over society. Reading this play, about an industrialist who manipulates those around him to gain access to a treasured piece of land, reminds us that there is a thin line between exploiting opportunities and exploiting people. The Wild Duck, in turn, conjures more Chekhovian references, with a death scene at the end that echoes the same, powerful conclusion to Hedda Gabler. All three plays reveal a writer obsessed with the derangement that comes when intense desires we don’t even understand feel just beyond our reach.    

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