Hedda Gabler

Thu 8th – Fri 9th May 2014

reviews

Henrietta Bailey-King

at 10:03 on 9th May 2014

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Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is a caged monster. The play is a balancing-act between a sense of repressed drama, tumult and violence, and the surface of genteel propriety under which it seethes. To be fair to St Hilda’s College Drama Society, if I came away feeling tired and bored, that does rather seem to be the point.

In spite of a fair smattering of death and intrigue, all the sexy bits occur off stage, evoked after the fact in nervous, lingering conversation. The poor audience, like poor Hedda, is trapped in a single house over the course of a few punishingly pedestrian days. Oh won’t somebody let me out of this skimpily staged ‘villa’, with its crap wallpaper and glittery fake flowers? Ibsen nails that early feminist thing of depicting the oppressed feminine longing to escape; I start to feel the same myself after about six minutes.

But how exactly can this heavyweight of nineteenth-century drama be anything other than dazzling? It’s packed with dark revelations, sexual tension, crushing betrayal. It’s got suicides and, better yet, murder-cum-suicides, all on a bed of rage and longing. Problem number one? Dat script. Ibsen’s achingly subtle exposition only ever points towards this mess of buried desires. The play demands razor-like precision from its actors if we are to hear all the ghosts of past love affairs, crammed as they are into one bourgeois front parlour.

Our clear winners in this respect are Hedda (Schnurr), Judge Brackiss (Delmonte) and Mrs Ellis (Armstrong). From Schnurr we have a miniaturist masterpiece in facial expressions. Fine variations – from the violent tilt of her head, the sudden flicker of a clenched jaw or tensed neck – stand as signs of a repressed fire within her. Delivery, too, is slick and dramatic. A crisp ‘no thank you, maybe later’ is dropped like an ice cube into boiling water. The farcical exchanges with Desmond (McVicar) are a delight to watch: his faux-jovial punches and her manic smile perfectly propping up the tightly-wound dialogue.

Outside these moments of precision, St Hilda’s Hedda Gabler doesn’t have a lot to give. The scenes which are supposed to be grinding, intense dredgings-up of the past are one part reminiscence to two parts polite conversation. Loveborg (Lehane) and Ellis’ dynamic often feels nervous and over-caffeinated (not forbidden love so much as awkward-at-the-water-cooler). Some poor directorial choices serve to soften the already flabby atmosphere. Jazzy elevator-style muzak, for example, plays during Hedda and Judge Brackiss’ most intimate exchange, adding a hugely problematic comic note. When played to its best advantage this scene is widely regarded as one of the most poignant moments in drama. Perhaps there are no fixed directorial right and wrongs. But when delivering world-famous dialogue concerning life and love, your audience should probably be able to tell whether a scene is intended to be comic or not.

Did the directors sit down and think: ‘1890 was A Long Time Ago. Norway is Far Away. How ever can we engage an audience with this? Perhaps if we anglicise all the characters’ names? (Tesmond becomes Desmond – Pow! Lovborg becomes…Loveborg! Wow!) Approachable or what. But let’s leave Hedda Gabler as she was cos like, obviously. Now our adaptation is super relevant’. Perhaps not. Nonetheless, the problem with this ‘contemporary adaptation’ is it doesn’t add anything. Not a scrap of meaning to an otherwise rich and provocative text. When you’re working with a script from theatrical BNOC Ibsen, there’s little excuse not to let the play speak to its universal themes, to bring its preoccupation with power lust, gender roles and propriety into some more interesting dialogue with the present than this.

A note on costumes: we know that Hedda is a Strong Female Protagonist / Not Afraid Of Her Sexuality / because she wears heels and glam dresses, Mrs Ellis a trembling leaf / Nervous Little Lady in her brogues and pleated skirt. The costumes manage to be stonkingly obvious as well as rather slippery with regards to time, Aunt Julia (Willis-Rushforth) seemingly costumed for the 1890s, Hedda for the here-and-now. In a rather thin attempt to bring Hedda Gabler up to date, the costumes sit vaguely around the contemporary. But without a defined sense of when, where and why we are, it feels like a case of ‘why don’t we just let everyone wear their own clothes’.

The truly glorious moments in this play are stand-out, stand-alone triumphs. Schnurr is magnificent in the role of Hedda, giving genuine, sharp shape to Hedda’s often inchoate desire to ‘take control of a man’s destiny’. McVicar’s delivery of the marvellously meaningless refrain ‘fancy that’ is comic gold. The neat visual metaphors of Hedda pushing Mrs Ellis in a rocking chair, or stalking her around the stage like prey are beautifully-executed. These moments are elegant and furiously beautiful, but they cannot overturn the sense that this play is a bit of a bore. St Hilda’s Hedda Gabler is, in large part, a deeply domestic, dreary and inward-looking affair dressed up with a little death and desire.

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