Actress likens 'Hedda' to a female Hamlet

The fascination of "Hedda Gabler" lies in the ambiguity of the title character, no less perplexing today than 110 years ago when Henrik Ibsen's play first burst on the public stage.

"Hedda is a complete enigma," says Kate Burton currently playing Hedda through January at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. "She'll turn on a dime. The more I tried to pin her down, I could not, so I decided I'll just play each moment. What's exciting about doing the play in these different places is to find out how far I can go with her."

The Huntington's production originated last summer at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and the Williamstown Theatre Festival in western Massachusetts. Jon Robin Baitz adapted the script from a literal translation of Ibsen's play to update the motivations of the characters to modern times, or at least, to give them a contemporary manner of speaking. The adaptation is directed by Nicholas Martin, who has cast an exemplary ensemble to support Ms. Burton, including Michael Emerson as George Tesman, her husband, and Harris Yulin as the menacing Judge Brack.

As destructive to herself as she is to everyone around her, Hedda might be totally amoral or simply a woman adrift without purpose in a man's world. Burton considers the character "a female Hamlet." Tormented and diabolical, bewitching and repelling, the assignment of bringing Hedda to life continues to be a defining goal for an actress. Ms. Burton follows in the footsteps of such great actresses as Eleonora Duse, who played Hedda around the turn of the last century, as well as Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Eva La Gallienne, Ingrid Bergman, and Maggie Smith, among many others.

The tragedy of "Hedda Gabler" unfolds over a tight two-day format. Married to Tesman, a stuffy academic, and yearning for a freedom of choice that is generally denied to a woman of her class, Hedda meddles in the lives of the people who surround her, causing the ruin of the brilliant scholar, Eilert Lovborg, her former suitor. Desperate to escape the threat of scandal for her part in his unsavory death, and threatened by the family friend, Judge Brack, Hedda sees clearly how the years ahead will unfold, and so she makes a shocking decision.

On stage, Burton makes a fascinating Hedda, capricious in her attitudes and given to outbursts of romantic notions that serve her fancies, in place of courageous action or taking responsibility. She can hardly keep still, pacing in wide circles around the high-ceilinged drawing room, backed by a library where her father's portrait hangs on the wall. Her preference for the gloom of pulled curtains and closed windows, rather than fresh air, suggests the self-imposed restraints of her fear of scandal.

"Hedda initiates so much activity but then when it gets out of control, she goes, 'Wait a minute.' She's very concerned about what people will say. It's her bourgeois tendencies that are her downfall," she says. Indeed, faced with the prospect of a marriage to a mediocre man, Hedda shoots herself. Her behavior caused a sensation at the play's premieres in Germany, Denmark, Norway, and England in 1891.

"Hedda Gabler is very much of her time," Burton says. "So much of what she is dealing with is being a woman in that society, being repressed in not having the opportunities that men had, not being able to follow a career. As the only child, both daughter and son, of the general, everything she loves - guns, horses - were virtually male," Burton comments.

Before playing Hedda, Burton appeared as the daughter in the "Beauty Queen of Leenane" on Broadway and in Ireland and England, and in the American premiere of Brian Friel's "Give Me Your Answer, Do!" She is also well known as the D.A. Susan Alexander in the television series, "The Practice." Burton is married to Michael Ritchie, director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Burton, the daughter of the famed actor, Richard Burton, was never pushed into the theater even though she'd seen her father perform in three plays: "Equus," "Camelot," and "Private Lives." When she enrolled in Brown University she initially planned to be a diplomat. "My senior year I decided I wanted to be an actress and applied for drama school," she recalls. "My father was a huge star. I saw that and I saw the downside of it. He wanted to be a household name, at least at first. Afterwards he realized what a burden it was," she says.

Kate Burton was a little girl when her father married Elizabeth Taylor. "There's a little bit of Elizabeth in my Hedda, this incredibly charming woman," the actress says, with an impish grin. She continues to have a close relationship with Taylor and two more step-mothers who followed her. Her mother, Sybil, married the actor Jordan Christopher after the divorce and runs the Bay Street Theatre.

Richard Burton died in 1984 after his daughter had finished the Yale School of Drama. They worked together once, on the television series, "Ellis Island." "At the end of the day, I realized how beloved my father was. I still get that all the time," she says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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