Review: Sara Topham Delivers a Masterful Performance as HEDDA GABLER at the Stratford Festival

Director Molly Atkinson and a Brilliant Cast offer an Exciting and Devastating Production of Ibsen's Controversial Play

By: May. 31, 2024
Review: Sara Topham Delivers a Masterful Performance as HEDDA GABLER at the Stratford Festival
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One of the many thoughts immediately whirling through my mind as I emerged from the Tom Patterson Theatre after opening night of the Stratford Festival production of HEDDA GABLER is “what an incredible gift it is for Stratford audiences to take in vastly different productions in the same season or even sometimes on the same day.” The emotions felt walking out of each show that has opened thus far have been incredibly different, but equally powerful and it is just such a gift that we can experience the full range of human emotion whilst watching it reflected back to us by world class performers on world class stages.

The emotions evoked by this play are complex ones. HEDDA GABLER is raw and disturbing and funny and devastating. It is the story of a complicated woman trapped in a world that does not suit her. It explores the psyche of Hedda in a way that leads to more questions than answers. This piece will likely lead some theatregoers to engage in deep discussions while it will leave others speechless.

This production of the Patrick Marber version of the classic Henrik Ibsen play (from a literal translation by Karin and Ann Bamborough) is directed by Molly Atkinson and stars Sara Topham as Hedda Gabler, a clever, beautiful woman who has recently returned from her less than thrilling honeymoon with her overall average husband, Tesman (Gordon S. Miller). Trapped within the expectations of a patriarchal society, Hedda is bored and unhappy and either consciously or unconsciously derives entertainment and power over others through her acerbic wit, cunning charm, and clever manipulation. Jealousy of others’ successes and happiness – especially that of Thea Elvstead (Joella Crichton) with Hedda’s former beau, Lovborg (Brad Hodder), and desperation to not be under the power of others, Hedda takes multiple cruel, self-interested actions that lead to a devastating conclusion.

The desire for, and fear of losing 'Power' is a common theme in theatre, and has historically been seen as a “masculine” trait. This makes sense, because these stories that focus on an attempt to gain power take place in patriarchal societies where upward social mobility is sometimes only achievable for men. That is certainly the world in which HEDDA GABLER is set which makes the titular character’s obsession with power all the more interesting. HEDDA’s desire for power can only exist within the confines of her world – a world that is very small and limiting, and is likely the very reason she is so unhappy, frustrated, and desiring more. The power she yields throughout the play is that over other people through manipulation and the power she longs for is for a level of autonomy that she cannot even fully comprehend. When it comes to power over herself, there is no upward mobility - her goal is essentially to stave off others from having more power over her than they already do. This is incredibly bleak which is why it is no surprise that the ending of this play is also incredibly bleak.

Sara Topham masterfully portrays all facets of this controversal and complex character. Her Hedda is captivating. Even when she says or does something so upsetting that you want to cringe and look simply cannot.

Every performer in this small cast is excellent. Brad Hodder is heartbreaking as the brilliant but flawed Lovborg; Gordon S. Miller as the clueless but kind Tesman is as endearing to the audience as he is repulsive to his wife; Joella Crichton simultaneously infuses a timidness and a passion to Mrs. Elvsted; and Tom McCamus is both charming and scary as the well-connected Brack. Kim Horsman brings moments of levity as the maid Bertha; and Bola Aiyeoala brings a quiet dignity to Tesman's Aunt Juliana - a character who could have viewed the world in a similar way as Hedda, but has instead found ways to make it just a little bit better for herself and the people around her.

Another contributor to this fantastic production is Patrick Marber’s phenomenal version of this play. In a podcast interview that Director Molly Atkinson did with Stratford Festival Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino, she remarks that Marber trusts the intelligence of his audience, allowing lines that repeat information to be cut. This streamlining allows for an exciting and stressful pulse to be constantly beating in the background of this piece. Also of notice is an effective tweak to a line from a previous version that is rich with irony. In some versions of the play, when Tesman questions Hedda about why she destroyed Lovborg’s book, she subtly smiles and states that she did it for him, adding “I couldn’t bear the thought that anyone should eclipse you.” In this production, she says “I couldn’t bear the thought of you unhappy.” This word choice is striking because throughout the entire play, what often seems to provoke Hedda’s malevolent actions is in fact her apparent inability to bear seeing anyone else happy (when she herself is miserable).

Appropriately, there are important Audience Advisories that should be taken heed of when one is deciding whether or not to see this play. As a mental health professional, my mind immediately goes to the emotional well being of the audience and of the performers at the end of a provocative piece like this. This production is exciting and challenging and thought-provoking, but it also is not for everyone and if the topic of suicide is triggering for someone, I highly encourage them to seek out one of the other excellent productions that the Festival is mounting this season.

With brilliant direction and performances, this production of HEDDA GABLER is sure to be remembered fondly for years to come. 

HEDDA GABLER continues in Repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 28th.



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