November 01, 1989

Wodehouse Playhouse


Hedda Gabler
By Henrik Ibsen
State Theatre Company
Playhouse, October, 1989.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Ibsen’s plays, including the great works of his last phase of writing in the 1890s, operate on two levels – they are convincingly anchored in middle and upper class life in 19th century Europe at the same time as being dramas of what in classical literature is called psychomachia, the conflict of the soul.

Hedda Gabler is a Grade A example. In his copious, and very revealing, composition notes Ibsen wrote -“Tesman represents propriety, Hedda represents ennui, Mrs Elvsted modern nervousness and hysteria. Brack the representative of bourgeois society.” Hedda’s struggle is to make choices true to herself knowing that these are not the choices open to a `respectable’ woman.” Men and women don’t belong to the same century,” Ibsen flatly observed.

That Hedda Gabler remains, like much of Ibsen’s work, distinctly, even presciently modern, is indisputable. The play is not merely a Victorian case history, the binds it describes still confine and confound – “The daemon in Hedda,” Ibsen wrote,”is that she wants to influence another human being, but once that has happened, she despises him”

Staging Hedda Gabler, then, should not be a matter of reviving a much-loved classic, a relic, admirable for its surprising relevance to our own time. The play needs no special pleading and certainly doesn’t need gussying up to keep the customers awake. Playwright, translator and dramaturg Christopher Hampton, adapter of Dangerous Liaisons for stage and screen as well as Tartuffe for Britain’s National theatre several years back, has turned his clever hand to Hedda Gabler as well. While, as far I can see, it is substantially the same as Michael Meyer’s translation, there are observable attempts to make the play racier and more English.

The State Theatre production, directed by Rodney Fisher, has taken its cue from the Hampton version and added bits of business of its own. The result is Hedda Gabler as a sort of grim farce. This is an interesting choice but needed to be more sparingly applied and integrated. Instead of giving the play an edge of bitter, even absurd comedy, the combination of direction, design and performance is in danger of becoming P.G.Wodehouse with firearms.

Robert Kemp’s design, splendid though it is, combines with Nigel Levings’buttermilk lighting to give the play a Chekhovian glow. It is not historically important but thematically important, that Hedda Gabler avoids looking like springtime in Sarajevo. There is a frozen quality to Ibsen, an emotional chill and a paralysis of the will; this is the tundra of the human heart, a landscape of black fjords and trolls- not chit-chat around a samovar. And despite its unities of time and place, Ibsen’s world is not a literal one, it is emblematic and abstract also.

State has assembled an accomplished cast for this production.Geoff Morrell is a subtle comic actor but he treads too fine a line with Tesman. The man is a ninny, incomplete, unworldly, also good-natured and loyal- Morell captures much of this but he is too Bertie Woosterish in doing so. When, at the revelation of Lovborg’s grisly suicide, he whispers to Hedda-“We shall never be able to escape from this,” there is no sense of the closing net, of irrevocable events and inevitable consequences. Melita Jurisic, relieved of the duty to amuse, is convincing as Thea Elvsted, the unlikely mirror in action of Hedda’s inertia. As Lovborg, Eugene Gilfedder, is uneven, and in the crucial, covert love scene with Hedda, disappointingly unfocused.

While giving a strong performance, Robin Nevin captures only part of Hedda. She has her fury- febrile and irritable to distraction, she also shows the general’s daughter in no-man’s-land, with aristocratic tastes and patrician sensibilities. We understand why she is incensed by the kindly banalities of Tesman and his aunts. But her fin de siecle gemlike flame is missing. Hedda’s aestheticist rapture at Lovborg’s fatal destiny is cryptic, as is her destruction of the manuscript- we don’t get much sense, from Robyn Nevin, of what makes Hedda’s imagination tick. For this reason, the strength of the scenes with John Gaden’s reptilian Judge Brack only tilts further the view of Hedda, to use Michael Meyer’s phrase, as a kind of suburban Lady Macbeth.

State have given us an accessible Hedda Gabler, with luscious production values (again Kemp’s stylish decor deserves praise , even if it is in the wrong play) but despite its apparent clarity it doesn’t show us, as it should, a woman destroyed by an incomplete society and the its infantalised, and infantalising, expectations of women. Hedda’s suicide by gunshot , especially staged in full view, is reduced to ludicrous misadventure. Robin Nevin’s Hedda, roaming the house like a caged animal should have done the job offstage, separate from the bogus domestic tableau of Tesman, Brack and Mrs Elvsted and reminding us of the excruciating alienation of her life and imagination. As it is, when Brack exclaims, “People don’t do such things,” we are inclined to agree.

“Wodehouse Playhouse” The Adelaide Review, No.69, November, 1989.
pp. 28-9.

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