This review of Hedda Gabler, written by Leonard Rogers, first appeared in Offbeat News, our bi-monthly newsletter.
Asked to write a OBN review I hurried to buy a copy of Christopher Hampton's excellent version from Amazon for a penny (plus postage). It was money well spent. A mere dozen pages in and you already have the basic storyline. The late General Gabler's upper-class daughter Hedda arrives at her new home after an extended honeymoon with her solid middle-class husband George Tesman tagging along. She soon discovers but can't accept the banality of married life. Hedda Gabler/Tesman has to be one of the first fully developed neurotic female protagonists of the stage.
Ibsen in his notes on the character as anti-hero wrote: "Life for Hedda is a farce which isn't worth seeing through to the end". In fact it is a tragedy because she realises that, with her refined instincts and her aversion to intellectual interests, she is an anachronism in a changing world.
I must admit to two concerns before coming. The first was whether the production might verge sideways and drop too far into Melodrama. The plot and dialogue lend themselves to it; Ibsen was influenced by two popular dramatic forms of the nineteenth century, melodrama and the "well-made play".
The second: would the director be able fully to explore and bring to dramatic life the dialogue? One theatre critic (the late Prof. Eric Bentley) wrote, "An Ibsenite sentence often performs four or five functions at once. It sheds light on the character speaking, on the character spoken to, on the character spoken about; it furthers the plot. It also functions ironically in conveying to the audience a meaning different from that conveyed to the characters." Some pretty hard work on the subtext by veteran director Jack Wood and his well-chosen cast back in the rehearsal room then.
But on to the play. We enter the auditorium and see displayed a beautifully designed and constructed box set. The walls are near bare and painted stark off-white. The lights come up and it's all brightly lit; no shadows, no Stygian gloom or antimacassars, no feeling of time or period. It could be functionally furnished by IKEA. The director may have had a vision of Hedda existing, and exposed, within this alienating bare white box far removed from any "Victoriana" . This was an intriguing and most unusual approach and certainly not the dark realism painted by Scandinavian artists of thousands such elaborate rooms in the 1890s. Or by the playwright himself.
Whenever up-centre-stage french windows appear on a set the creative team always has a problem with the exterior backdrop, especially as here when space was limited. If it's an "anyone for tennis?" play then it may be forgiven, but when the overall aim is for realism perhaps the entrance could be on the side wall when we can then imagine the shrubbery beyond.
The action begins with the two characters of the servant and the aunt, setting the scene in two pages and establishing the entrance of the Tesmans later. Jackie Lawn as Berte was given little to do but look elderly, rustic and worried and did it very well, and Maggie Box gently fulfilled the script description of Miss Tesman as "pleasant and kindly". Then arrives George Tesman. I did wonder beforehand whether he would appear wimpish - the script hints at it - but not Christopher Wallace. At his first entrance you knew exactly the kind of well-meaning, cheerful, respectable person Tesman was, a wholly-rounded impersonation and a joy to watch. As the play progressed and his anguish over his new wife and his old friends grew his body language was as effective as his words. He looked at ease in his period clothes too.
So, with the back story out of the way, enter the eponymous (and possibly pregnant) Hedda Gabler. Having the actors' main entrance upstage and at a right angle to the audience, means that most first entrances lose their dramatic effect as the actor is seen in statuesque profile: this was particularly so with Hannah Leonard's first exposure. This actor's main feature is undoubtedly the exquisite mobility of her face which she used throughout to register the many mental hoops she jumped through before the final bullet. She certainly showed in her looks the complexity of the character. Were we meant to feel sorry for this Hedda, out of her social milieu and married to the wrong man? Were we meant to be fascinated and revolted by her? In Hannah Leonard's perfectly valid interpretation of a haughty, rude, and conniving Hedda there was very little to like - and yet. I think one might at times have felt for her and her situation. She was the general's daughter - did he commit suicide too? The director might have introduced some wit or lightness into her presentation to leaven the acidity. I think Ibsen hated Hedda, and meant us to laugh at her.
Her lover from the past, the writer Eilert Lovborg, returns. Chris Janes enters ramrodstiff, uptight, uttering short sharp neutral sentences. His costume is that of a senior clerk, yet this was the chap who used to run around town getting drunk and hanging around with the wrong crowd and naughty women. And this was the poetic person who Hedda imagines with vine leaves in his hair, throwing restraint and order to the wind. Even though now he is reformed and teetotal there might have been something in his first appearance to suggest that vital element in his nature still remained. As to his post-party appearance I don't think he would have staggered around Christiana with his shirt-tails hanging out: that was just so obvious. Mr Janes is too good and subtle an actor to have to resort to this.
Ibsen called Mrs Elvsted "the type of conventional, sentimental, hysterical petty bourgeoisie." But she is perhaps the most courageous character in the play. With her abundant hair, slender figure, big blue (?) eyes, and gentle manner, Julia Ryan was the picture of the young Victorian widow. But beneath that delicate exterior she imperceptibly implied an agenda that would let nothing stand in its way, not even Hedda - she won George in the denouement after all, that was no accident.
Judge Brack is the only character that Hedda was ever honest with, and their intimate scenes together make this apparent. He's a fixer and untrustworthy. The moment Paul Russell arrived on the scene, crinklyeyed, constantly smiling and smirking, it was evident this imposing actor had rightly found the truth inside this cynical man. The final moments when he tries to blackmail her into bed saying, "I'm sure the two of us will have a really enjoyable time together" provoked shudders in this viewer. Poor unhappy Hedda Gabler.
Ibsen said of the ending, "Life is not tragic. Life is ridiculous." It was an interesting experience, watching this production, I hope it will be well received by the Theatre Week audience.
Photographs by Steve Beeston.