Henrik Ibsen and Brian Friel
Inevitably, given the opportunity to present one of the most revered and frequently performed plays in the Western canon, an exciting young director will seek to put their individual stamp on it. Chelsea Walker's take on Hedda Gabler in the Sherman's main auditorium is certainly imaginative. There are elements, however, which are slightly troubling.
The text utilised is Brian Friel's version of Ibsen's classic tale of maladaptive female self-empowerment, first performed in Dublin in 2008. The narrative involves the newly wed malcontent Hedda arriving at the home she is to share with her new husband George Tesman after a long honeymoon largely devoted to his intellectual pursuits.
It quickly becomes clear, however, that the former Miss Gabler has married George in an attempt to draw a line under her past. Because, heavy on her mind are are two apparent former lovers: the hedonistic Judge Brack and her husband's rival in scholarship, Eilert Loevberg. And this is to reckon without her husband's Aunt Juliana pressuring her to conform to convention by producing a child.
This production takes place on a set, designed by Rosanna Vize, dominated by starkly modernist furniture; all except the battered piano, imported from Hedda's family home and which actress Heledd Gwynn plays, impressively, in a brief, wordless prologue, immediately giving an impression of a gifted but preoccupied woman. Her improvisation slowly merges with the recorded score (credited to both Giles Thomas and Robert Sword). The other cast members are seated in raised chairs at the back of the playing area and remain there until called upon.
As the action proper begins, Gwynn remains on stage, her back to the audience, while Juliana and family servant Bertha discuss recent events; despite the fact that Hedda is not in the room. Thus we quickly discern that Walker is giving us a universe in which everything revolves around the title character, even when she is not present.
When, presently, we meet George, played as an engaging nerd by Marc Antolin, it becomes clear that he is far more devoted to her than she is to him. He seems oblivious to the insinuations of Richard Mylan’s sybaritic and self-regarding Brack.
Matters are further complicated by the return to town of Loevborg, Jay Saighal convincing as an on-the-edge recovering alcoholic, alongside Hedda's former schoolmate Thea Elvsted, who, it appears, has abandoned her marriage in order to act as Loevberg's unpaid assistant and the uncredited co-author of her soulmate's revolutionary new book.
While much of the subsequent action takes place on an ill-advised night out enjoyed by the men, which we do not see, it is the women who are the focus. Despite Gwynn’s almost masculine coiffure, the manipulative but frustrated Hedda is clad in a slinky blue dress, in contrast to the monochrome colour-scheme favoured by everyone else.
Her attention-seeking self-obsession is thrown into sharp relief by the selflessness displayed by the other female characters—Alexandra Riley especially impressive as Thea, who is passionate both about Eilert and their joint literary project; Nia Roberts as the decidedly non-spinsterish Aunt Juliana who has devoted her life to looking after her ailing sister; and Caroline Berry as the faithful, stoical Bertha.
Walker's visuals, designed to highlight Hedda's exceptionalism, are striking; there is a clever floral motif reflecting her unconventional femininity. Elements of her treatment do distract from the narrative however—such as the long, innuendo-riddled conversation between Hedda and the judge which takes place with Mylan wandering around the auditorium; the excessive smoke accompanying the real fire; the replacement of the tense, tinnitus-esque underscore in the first act with increasingly loud, beat-driven music as we reach the dialogue-heavy climax of the second; and other dislocatory moments where the unclear distinction between on-stage and off-stage action confuses rather than illuminates.
The potency of the performances is undeniable, however, especially that of Gwynn, who is mesmerising as an unhappy woman who can see no alternative other than to use the limited power granted to her, in a patriarchal society, unwisely and self-destructively. My slight reservations notwithstanding, this bold production is certainly respectful of Ibsen’s noble intentions.
Reviewer: Othniel Smith