The Toronto actress and her director, Jennifer Tarver, discuss their 1950s take on Ibsen’s dangerous housewife.
After starring in last season’s The Wild Party (one of Torontoist‘s Top 10 shows of 2015) and making her mark at the Stratford Festival, Cara Ricketts would seem primed to play the title role in Necessary Angel Theatre Company‘s revival of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. But who knew that the Toronto actress was also so good at playing hard to get?
When Necessary Angel’s Jennifer Tarver proposed a co-production with Matthew Jocelyn of Canadian Stage and got his enthusiastic thumbs-up, the name “Cara Ricketts” immediately popped into her head. “She was my absolute first choice for Hedda,” Tarver says during an interview in the lobby of the Berkeley Street Theatre, where the play opens Thursday.
And what actress with classical chops wouldn’t leap at the chance to portray a character often regarded as the female Hamlet?
“But then I emailed Cara,” Tarver says, “and didn’t hear back from her for weeks.”
When Ricketts finally did respond, it was to coyly inform Tarver that she was going to be focusing on film and television work. So the director heaved a sigh, said “Big loss to the theatre world,” and started considering other candidates for the part. “And then, lo and behold,” she says, “Cara’s résumé was submitted for an audition and I went, ‘What?!'”
“I was playing you all along,” Ricketts says teasingly, seated across a table from Tarver.
Tarver bursts into laughter. “That’s when I realized, ‘This is the real Hedda.'”
After all, Hedda Gabler is not only one of the theatre’s great tragic figures, she’s also one of its most elusive. Newly married to a promising academic but already disappointed with life, Hedda takes out her frustrations on an old love, jealously attempting to destroy him, only to have her plan backfire horribly. She’s a woman who is fascinating and infuriating in equal measure, and Ricketts admits her first reaction at the prospect of playing her was trepidation.
“I was a little scared, to be honest,” she says, looking disarmingly like a student in her offstage garb: a plaid shirt, purple tuque and black-framed glasses. “Everybody has an idea about this woman.” Hedda Gabler comes to us trailing a history of performances by famous actresses—Ingrid Bergman, Diana Rigg, and Cate Blanchett, just to name a few—as well as reams of critical analyses that paint her as everything from a proto-feminist to a psychopath. Ricketts says she could only take on the part by shaking off all that baggage.
Tarver’s concept has helped her. Instead of staging the play in its original setting, Norway in the 1890s, the director has moved it up to a decade midway between then and now—the 1950s—and relocated it to an American Ivy League college town. Tarver calls the 1950s “an era of veneer,” when people tried to live up to a rose-coloured ideal and married women were expected to be happy homemakers. But it was also a veneer about to be smashed to shards in the social revolution of the 1960s—an upheaval that Hedda’s ex-flame, the visionary historian Ejert Lovborg (Christopher Morris), anticipates in his writings.
At the same time, Tarver adds, Hedda Gabler is very much a play for today. To promote the production, she had her cast send in selfies for a photo collage and the show has adopted the Twitter hashtag #iamhedda. It’s a way of linking our present-day passion for constructing our personal narratives on social media with Hedda’s attempt to manipulate the narrative of Lovborg’s life. And she’s not the only one trying to control the lives of others: Tarver sees the drama as essentially a struggle between the scandal-courting Hedda and Judge Brack (Steve Cumyn), the family friend and representative of social order, who’d like to impose his own discreet narrative on her marriage to George Tesman (Frank Cox O’Connell).
Hedda is as obsessed with public image as the judge. And she also suffers from a deadly boredom that she tries to alleviate both with her machinations involving Lovborg and by playing dangerously with the pistols left to her by her late father, General Gabler. Ricketts says in these respects Hedda would fit right in with the age of social media. “You look at these people on Snapchat or Instagram who spend hours presenting this veneer of how their life is so fabulous, when the truth is nothing’s really happening to them,” she says. “It’s all about fighting the ennui, and that’s what Hedda’s doing: ‘How do I keep myself interested in this life that I’ve ended up in, which has turned out to be so disappointing?’ She would totally have an Instagram account, and it would be filled with stolen pictures from magazines.”
Ricketts herself hasn’t had to spend much time fighting ennui. Her career has been on the fast track ever since she graduated from Humber College’s Theatre Performance program in 2005 and dove into the Toronto acting pool. In 2009 she made her Stratford debut and spent four seasons there, moving quickly from minor roles to major ones, including Innogen in 2012’s Cymbeline. Meanwhile, Tarver was also doing impressive work at the festival and in 2011 the two joined forces when Tarver cast Ricketts in a critically acclaimed production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming—with Ricketts more than holding her own as the lone woman in a formidable male ensemble led by Brian Dennehy.
The following year, Tarver took her first stab at Hedda Gabler, directing a slightly more traditional production for Connecticut’s Hartford Stage Company. (In that show, like this one, Tarver used the 2001 adaptation of Ibsen’s text by U.S. playwright Jon Robin Baitz.) Although it was well-received, Tarver says she felt she’d only skimmed the surface of the play. “For me, it was like dipping my toe into it. With the themes I was touching on that first time, I thought, ‘Oh man, what if you really went further with this?’ A lot of this had to do with seeing the play through the lens of one of the other characters.” That character being, in this production, Judge Brack. Tarver says in her concept he not only represents society’s point of view, he even breaks the invisible “fourth wall” between the actors and audience. (Shades of Tarragon Theatre’s An Enemy of the People.)
This show is only the second time Tarver has worked with Ricketts and the latter wasn’t kidding: she really is doing more film and TV work, notably appearing in last year’s CBC miniseries of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes. But, as The Wild Party and now Hedda Gabler suggests, she’s far from abandoning the stage.
“The thing I love about theatre is that it’s a growing and living organism,” she says, which is especially true when revisiting a timeless classic like Hedda Gabler. “Our interpretation of it changes with each translation or adaptation or lens that we perceive it through. It’s Ibsen through a broken telephone—and that’s beautiful and challenging.”