Cordelia Lynn, after Henrik Ibsen
Headlong, Chichester Festival Theatre and The Lowry
Cordelia Lynn has created an intriguing adaptation of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler that keeps all of the elements of the original but rearranges them into something that feels like a new, modern play.
While the events in Lynn's play follow closely those in Ibsen's, they are not set in the same time, either in history or in Hedda's life. Ibsen placed his action straight after Hedda had married academic George Tesman but had refused to adopt his name, keeping instead the surname of her beloved father, General Gabler, whose portrait still dominates the set. Lynn's Hedda survives her early marriage and unwelcome pregnancy and has just returned to the UK after thirty years of marriage so her husband can take up a professorship. Both of the Tesmans were academics, historians, but Hedda gave up her career when she had her child, a daughter.
The play begins in a similar way with Hedda teasing George's Aunt Julie (Jacqueline Clarke) about her new hat, although this Julie seems more worldly wise and tolerant than Ibsen's after thirty years' experience of Hedda's moods and wicked sense of humour. As cleaner Bertha (Rebecca Oldfield) sorts through the boxes of things for them in their new house, Thea (Natalie Simpson) arrives in a panic; this Thea is not an old friend of Hedda but their estranged daughter, who has left her husband and is worried about brilliant academic Elijah (Irfan Shamji), a former PhD student of George (rather than his former colleague), who left the area when he was an unstable alcoholic but has apparently reformed.
Jonathan Hyde's Brack is a snobbish schemer who has been a friend to the Tesmans but is willing to use what he knows to manipulate them to his own ends. He puts the worry in George's head that Elijah may claim that one of George's books was largely plagiarised from his PhD thesis and put his professorship at risk, but Elijah is only focussed on his new book—of which he still only has one handwritten copy, of course. But when Hedda and Elijah are alone together, it is clear that he was more to her in the past than just her husband's student.
This Hedda is in a recognisable modern world where an invitation can be issued by phone rather than by letter and a manuscript can be published online as 'pay what you want', but these references don't feel gratuitous and aren't overdone. Ibsen's symbolism still comes strongly through—the General's portrait and guns, the stove in the corner, the manuscript, the piano—but making Elijah the student rather than the colleague and Thea the daughter rather than the friend adds a different perspective, especially to the fact that Hedda and Thea haven't seen one another for such a long time. Thea challenges Hedda to admit she never wanted her in a conversation that sets up a debate about whether it is right to leave a marriage (Thea says, "you have to let go of the past to be free") or to stay and work at it—a debate that Ibsen himself posed across two of his plays, A Doll's House and Ghosts.
In Lynn's play, Hedda is still the strong female role that Ibsen made it and Haydn Gwynne inhabits the character convincingly. She can be unpredictable, vindictive and nasty, but she can also be likeable and funny—there is a lot of humour in this play—and somehow Gwynne brings all of this together and makes her believable. Anthony Calf is the perfect foil for her as George in a relationship that appears, deep down, to be based on love even if neither displays much affection for the other. Even the relatively small part of the cleaner, Bertha, is developed into a believable character with a life beyond the stage that is true to the modern world.
Holly Race Roughan's production, designed by Anna Fleischle, takes place on a low thrust stage in the middle of what is usually the stalls at the Quays, which certainly brings the action close to the audience (I was almost on the stage) but does mean that the furniture causes some visibility problems from the remaining fairly flat auditorium. For the last act, Hedda's desk had been placed right in front of me, so quite a bit of the dialogue was coming from disembodied voices for me, especially when anyone was sat down. Scenes are linked by Ruth Chan's hauntingly atonal music played by a solo pianist (both Catriona Beveridge and Jennifer Whyte are credited) only seen in silhouette through the wall of the house.
For most of the time, the production is perfectly paced, but for me the last act seemed like a bit of a jumble of events and resolutions that dragged a little (not being able to see may have contributed to that). However this is a well-written, intelligent piece of theatre that straddles the border between adaptation and new writing but justifies taking that position convincingly, played by some of our top actors on very good form.
Reviewer: David Chadderton