Review: HEDDA GABLER at Coal Mine Theatre

Coal Mine's production brings sizzle to its fiery lead

By: May. 19, 2024
Review: HEDDA GABLER at Coal Mine Theatre
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“I want to be in the middle,” says Diana Bentley’s Hedda Gabler in Coal Mine’s new production, slotting herself neatly between her ex-lover and new husband’s old rival Eilert Lovborg (Andrew Chown) and his employer-cum-admirer Thea (Leah Doz) on the freshly-purchased couch in the overly-expensive house to which the newlyweds have just returned.

Director Moya O’Connell’s take on Henrik Ibsen’s play, in a new version by Liisa Repo-Martel, emphasizes the power of triangles, relationship groupings that seem stable but which are easily unbalanced by such an act of bisection. With a dynamite cast, an accessible adaptation, and the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in Hedda’s living room, this HEDDA GABLER is as fiery as its heroine’s desire to burn down everything around her.

Hedda’s just gotten married to Jorgen Tesman, a devoted man well underneath her station, but who anticipates his appointment at the university will come through any day now. Qasim Khan as Tesman, owlishly blinking through round spectacles, is fresh from the lead role in Canadian Stage’s epic The Inheritance; both characters are decent, thoughtful and theoretical men more inclined to sort out others’ lives than pay full attention to what’s crumbling under their own noses, and Khan does a similarly excellent job of playing both. Spending all of his meager stipend on a lavish honeymoon trip that bored Hedda to tears, Tesman and his less-than-eager wife are besieged upon their return by a series of visitors, each with a complex motive.

The calculating Hedda, restless in her desperate ennui and determined to play a larger role in the fate of men than that what her life seems to promise, constantly practices “the cut direct,” and her incursion into the lives of others, like a bull in a Scandinavian china shop, proves to be ruinous for all involved. Bentley plays with each visitor like a cat with different types of prey. With the saintly Aunt Julia (Fiona Reid), she’s dismissive and cold, warming up only enough that the older woman fears she’s been the one to cause a faux pas.

Her demeanour with Judge Brack (Shawn Doyle), who has provided the couple with a badly-needed mortgage, is sultry, as she plays to his vanity, promising more while metaphorically reaching into his pocket. Game recognizes game, and the two seem almost shadowed by looming ulterior motives, though there are some tensions between them which still remain underexplored.

With Thea, a former bullying target at school, Hedda’s all buddy-buddy as the woman pours out her fears that Lovborg, the genius that she rescued and then followed out of a loveless marriage, has gone missing to resume his dissolute ways instead of releasing the book she helped him compose. It’s only a matter of time, though, until Hedda’s hair trigger releases and the hair-pulling begins. And with Lovborg, Hedda’s former lover, we see glimpses of her naked ambition to take charge of a great man’s destiny, and her desire for something brave and beautiful beyond a life of wifely drudgery.

It's a complex role, all the more so due to its original composition before a more nuanced understanding of psychology took root, and Bentley does it justice with a fine cast to play off. As always, Reid is a treat in whatever she does, even more so from ten centimetres away in the intimate space where entrances and exits are through the audience. Reid’s Julia, so easy to make sanctimonious in her devotion to others, is here more complex. When she claims that the sick are never strangers for long, there’s an intriguing hint of vulnerability and need in the midst of her saintly glow. Doz, who recently memorably played a young participant in a clinical drug trial in Coal Mine’s production of The Effect, looks like she could use a couple of Valium at all times. Dismissed by everyone around her, she’s very satisfying to watch when she finally explodes.  And Doyle as Brack gives us an enigmatic oiliness as the man with multiple kinds of leverage over the couple, though this Hedda is so fiery that it seems he could push further as he backs her into an impossible corner.

The production’s design highlights some creepy, almost supernatural elements. Emily Haines of Metric has provided an atmospheric soundtrack that feels modern, but not at odds with the rest of the production, and which bleeds into the heartbeats we hear underneath (or is that the subway rumbling below us?). The house (set designed by Joshua Quinlan) seems to back out almost on a jungle, into which Hedda fires her pistols at an encroaching visitor, and a fateful stove sits in the middle of one side of the audience. The painting above Hedda’s piano, the instrument she frets seems out of place, is skillfully lit (Kaitlin Hickey) so that the man staring at us fades in and out at various times. It’s both subtle and powerful, creeping up on you before you realize what’s happening.

Similarly, an opening where Hedda plays said out-of-place instrument is dimly lit to the point that it feels ghostly. With her back exposed, we see Bentley’s individual vertebrae under the glow. This gives her a lean and hungry look, and makes Tesman and his aunt’s comments about how much Hedda has “filled out” on her honeymoon stand out even more as wishful thinking about her potential to settle in to the respectable wife role she has no intention of playing.

To that end, we rattle against the confines of each of the women in the play, as it presents us with two types of women: the ones who long to nurture either children or the ill and believe that is the highest women’s role, and the ones who have no desire for nurturing and believe in a different kind of creation, whether it’s bringing a book to life or turning the corner on a great man’s fate. In the end, though, they’re all shown to be at the mercy of others, a lack of control in a cruel world offering few ways out.

The devastating simplicity of Hedda’s final move to leave this situation holds all the power; in the original play, she exits the stage, but in O’Connell’s production only a simple gauzy curtain separates her from the audience. Unfortunately, the two busy moments that follow it are both less powerful than the simple, clear visual; while a final directorial choice raises the creepy and possibly even supernatural stakes, a lack of connection to earlier motifs makes it more of a curiosity or afterthought than an arrow to the heart.

However, the rest of the production proves the power of threes more than adequately, whether it be a love triangle, two people’s struggle over a book or position, or an increasingly bold set of hints that a woman’s marriage and role in life will only truly be valid if it results in the creation of a third person.

And Hedda’s in the middle of all of it.

Photo of Diana Bentley, Shawn Doyle, and Qasim Khan by Elana Emer


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