Caragh Medlicott attends the Sherman in Cardiff to review the new adaptation of the Norwegian Ibsen classic, Hedda Gabler.
Who is Hedda Gabler? It’s a layered question – and one which must be tackled by the director, cast and audience of the Sherman in every performance of this Norwegian classic. Director Chelsea Walker is the latest to rise to the challenge with her take on Henrik Isben’s original text. Today, the literary world is well acquainted with criticism surrounding “mad” women from the Victorian and fin de siècle era. This, perhaps, is one reason (beyond its obvious theatrical merit) that Hedda Gabler continues to be so interesting today. Isben’s play is distinct from other texts of its time; Hedda is a female protagonist both neurotic and autonomous. She is no muted madwoman in the attic. As Walker states in her director’s note, ‘Hedda Gabler has always felt timeless’.
Performed in Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre, Hedda Gabler opens with a woman and a piano. As Hedda (Heledd Gwynn) dances her hands over the keys, anonymous figures criss-cross the stage which is exposed right to the wings. Each person places down a vase of flowers, moving ghost-like, oblivious to Hedda who begins to weave around them, her body asking: why? It’s a beautiful moment and a portentous one. The people in Hedda’s life seldom feel real or fathomable, at least not to her. By the play’s end, every flower on stage will be lost, crushed or burned. The combined work of designer Rosanna Vize, movement director Michela Meazza and composers Robert Sword and Giles Thomas give this opening its gravity.
Throughout Hedda Gabler the rest of the cast is lined up in seats visible at the back of the stage, they only come to life when called to occupy Hedda’s space. Recently returned from her honeymoon, Hedda Gabler – now Hedda Tesman – suffers her husband George (Marc Antolin) with aloof and strained patience. Antolin imbues the stuffy and dull George with new energy, he is an answer to the irreproachable (yet insufferable) “nice guy” of modern culture. His instinctual self-centeredness is akin to that of a golden retriever, comic and endearing – well, at least for the first five minutes. It’s a deft move from Walker, George’s shallow selfishness serves to magnify the depth of Hedda’s own narcissism.
The traditional themes of class, money and power are still alive in this adaption. Though apparently stable, George’s all-but-guaranteed professorship is suddenly thrown into doubt. His doting Aunt Juliana (Nia Roberts) – or Aunt Juju – has little money to help. Bertha (Caroline Berry), the Tesmans’ maid, rightly suspects Hedda’s resentment. For Hedda money is a dull means to an end which she’d rather remain unbothered by; in her eyes, aesthetics and grandeur are artistic expressions. That expression must continue regardless of income. Though George and Hedda’s fortune is under threat, Hedda is elevated by her family status. Something she dangles jealously over Thea Elvsted (Alexandria Riley) – the new muse and collaborator of Eilert Løvborg (Jay Saighal).
Only Judge Brack (Richard Mylan) is equal to Hedda in status, and in power? Well, that’s a precarious question. In their secret shared moments, Hedda and Judge Brack enjoy laughing at the prattle of the others and their concern over boring mundane things. Walker’s take on Hedda Gabler provides fresh texture to this relationship. A notable moment comes after a sudden blackout – light is restored when Hedda fires a gun at Judge Brack who is inexplicably offstage and walking down the auditorium steps. Standing with flawless posture in her satin dress, gun pointed directly at the audience, Gwynn’s Hedda is magnetic. While Judge Brack exudes pomp and sleaziness by the bucketload, he still pales when placed next to Hedda’s immovable intensity. Eilert Løvborg, too, convincingly manifests the image of a recovered-alcoholic-turned-brilliant-academic. Yet, alone with former-lover Hedda, his passion washes into desperation.
The complexity of Hedda’s character can be understood in different ways. Contextually, Hedda Gabler premiered at an epochal time in the early feminist movement (1891). Since then it has been critically analysed for its interpretation of the ‘new woman’; a literary ideal which has been through representational contortions, perhaps most prominently in the femme fatale trope which grew in prominence during the 20th century. For her part, Walker steadfastly resists casting Hedda as a manic-pixie-dream-girl type. Hedda is not there to serve or teach the men but to drive their actions for her own amusement.
Walker’s version of Hedda is certainly not free of neurosis, but – for the most part – she exacts her psychopathy with eerie composure. There is something delicious in the dramatism of Hedda calmly disposing of the flowers on stage. The precise way she throws them from their vases and lights them with a blowtorch. The heat of the flames, the smell of the smoke, it pushes the audience into Hedda’s world of extremes. No character is invulnerable to Hedda’s manipulation (except, arguably, Bertha). While the women treat her with fear, suspicion and even resentment, they are as apt as the men to be moved by her bursts of excitement and unforeseeable attacks. Hedda not only uses her allure, she pushes it to its limits. Toeing the line of exciting danger, and violence that goes a step too far.
The aesthetic of Walker’s Hedda Gabler is felicitous; the flourishes of theatrical drama appearing in bursts of blaring brass and descending mesh boxes match the stylish allure of this new production. The playing of electro-swing is, perhaps, one misstep. Realised, Gwynn’s Hedda can be enraged, inconsolable, maddened – but never hysterical. Here, Hedda’s puppet mastery is unapologetic. Make no mistakes, Hedda’s greatest pain is only that she cannot impose her control with unwavering accuracy and poeticism. It is, of course, incredibly promising that new female protagonists are increasing tenfold, both on and off the stage. Yet this new adaptation proves there’s still much to be found in the female characters of classic texts.
Hedda Gabler is on at the Sherman in Cardiff until November 2nd.
(Image: Mark Douet)