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Toneelgroep Amsterdam: Hedda Gabler outshines The Miser

Who knew Ibsen had a canine following in Holland? I thought as I stood in line at the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam directly behind a woman carrying a small dog in her purse. I was there to see Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s performance of “Hedda Gabler,” helmed by the company’s artistic director Ivo van Hove and starring the luminous Halina Reijn, one of seven productions being presented with English surtitles on Thursday evenings. (Nevertheless, from the sound of things it seemed the tiny pooch and I were the only ones in the Stadsschouwburg unable to speak Dutch.)

 I’d actually been to the castle-like theater the week before to catch van Hove’s version of “The Miser” (whose “English surtiteling is kindly supported by Grant Thornton,” a rectangular screen, too high above the stage to read and watch the action simultaneously, announced as the audience filtered in. Later the surtitles read, “Before dinner she’d like to meet your doughter”). Even more unfortunately, “The Miser” felt more like a self-conscious rehash of the Dutch director’s prior work – complete with an ending that had already been used for his far superior “La Voix Humaine” – rather than a vibrant new production. And to be honest, Moliere’s play, about a moneylender whose penny-pinching alienates his rebellious children and leads to his downfall, just doesn’t suit van Hove’s glossy showmanship. Piling frivolous action on top of the piece’s inherent silliness the director actually drains all satire from the Frenchman’s words. (There’s no tension-building contrast as there is when van Hove wraps his pop culture style around deep drama like Chekhov or Cocteau.)
Too overly thought-out and broadly drawn this “Miser” also leaves no room for spontaneity, as characters ignore real communication in order to lifelessly chat on cellphones and surf the web in clunky heavy-handed metaphors. Even veteran actor Hans Kesting, who plays the titular lead, seems too weak and nonthreatening for the role (where’s Al Pacino when you actually need him?) with no passion or conviction behind his set-piece rampage, just van Hove’s predictable use of hip-hop music. Harpagon’s transformation into a violent tyrant is not frightening to witness since nothing really feels at stake. “We should serve food that is filling but that no one will like,” the money hoarder declares (which, ironically, for expats describes most Dutch meals), preparing for an upcoming dinner party. It’s an apropos metaphor for “The Miser” itself, which is chockfull of empty calories.
Fortunately, van Hove’s “Hedda Gabler” fared far better (as did its English surtitles, still high above the action but at least organically in tune with the rest of the production). Indeed, watching the brilliant Halina Reijn as Hedda, a powerful presence unafraid of stillness (in sharp contrast to the over-exuberance of the actor playing her husband Tesman who seemed to be mimicking the idea of a man-child rather than adding flesh and blood to a classic character), I was struck by how much she seems to serve as muse to van Hove. From “Children of the Sun” to “La Voix Humaine” to “Hedda Gabler” Reijn is an inspirational presence to Toneelgroep Amsterdam, her self-assurance anchoring every production she’s in. And upon the massive spacious stage – white and empty save for some scattered shoes and potted plants, chairs, a table and a piano – Reijn as the tragic Hedda, whose life choices forever haunt her, quietly cuts through the pointless stage business (such as the other actors’ rearranging of furniture simply for movement’s sake) with her inner calm.
In addition, pairing Reijn with the actor playing the shady Judge Brack, Barry Atsma, who’s as talented as he is beautiful – if his English is any good Hollywood should take a look – allows for van Hove’s skill to truly shine. The director sinks his teeth deeply into their scenes, takes his time developing the S&M power struggle between the two characters rather than rushing headlong into the next act. The onstage busyness begins to settle down, a rhythm develops, so by the time Hedda ultimately loses her temper it’s a no-holds-barred rage (unlike Harpagon’s halfhearted tirades in “The Miser”). With the tension and chemistry between Reijn and Atsma making the life and death stakes onstage palpable “Hedda Gabler” becomes a taut thriller threaded through with Ibsen’s painful lines. (“You are unhappy,” Brack tells Hedda, to which she snaps, “Why do I have to be happy? Can you tell me that?”) And van Hove’s slow burn ending, which takes the brightly lit proceedings to pitch black, with words and sounds ringing from the infinite darkness, is nearly as stunning as the final scene of “La Voix Humaine.”


Front page photo: an print of the  Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam, circa 1795 by Simon Fokke. Public domain.