Hedda Gabler

Henrik Ibsen, translated by Michael Meyer
Bath Theatre Royal production
Richmond Theatre and touring
(2010)

Headstrong Hedda Gabler, general's daughter, with a brilliant society hostess future before her as wife of soon to be Professor Dr. Tesman… and how to self-destruct… in four tragi-farcical acts.

A beauty superior to other mere mortals, but, a tarnished cage, clipped wings, treble ennui, and double standards are her undoing.

Wanting to 'control a human destiny', she can't control her own life. Like Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, there is only one way out for her.

Victim and/or spoilt brat? A misfit, for sure. A Hamlet of a role: 'now could I drink hot blood'.

The psychotic idealist Hedda Gabler finds her perfect match in a Rosamund Pike straight out of Vogue. Strikingly beautiful, dressed in elegant haute couture gowns, Pike brings to Ibsen's irritable heroine Hitchcockian icy blonde froideur, haughty petulance, and a Lady Macbeth manipulative disposition.

What Hedda wants Hedda gets - well, not exactly, not in the masculine world of the late nineteenth century. There's always a trade-off, as Judge Brack makes clear. In the end big girls must do as men tell them, even rich girls ruined rotten by daddy. It's a man's world - did she think she could take it on and win?

Although apparently swamped with admirers, she has made a calculated match with the stolid auntie's boy Jörgen Tesman, a child-like Casaubon with his nose in a book or dusty library even on their lengthy honeymoon, which doubled as a research trip.

Trapped by a dull marriage, convention, her own deviousness, frigidity, and impulsiveness, she comes to realise that life is not beautiful, noble, or even tragic.

But, thoroughly unprincipled Hedda can't stop digging her hole deeper and deeper. Why can't she be like men, with their late night 'bachelor' parties? Not only is she born out of time but with the wrong chromosomes. And the men don't measure up to her ideals. Life is ugly and absurd, after all.

The talented Lövborg, the man she once thought would wear vine leaves in his hair, falls back into his old debauched ways, granted nudged there by her, and comes to a sordid end, putting her even more into the power of the reptilian Judge Brack. She has less influence than the faithful insignificant pathetic Mrs Elvsted willing to sacrifice herself for the great writer.

Full of frustration, amour propre, and, possibly, classic symptoms of lacerating self-hatred, her sole triumph can only be that which people of her class just don't do.

Ibsen might, imitating Flaubert, say Hedda c'est moi - so incisive and sympathetic the portrait of a doomed soul. The subtext sends shivers down the spine. It makes for interesting interpretations. What a piece of writing!

Director Adrian Noble's reading of the play is stiltedly traditional, but Mark Henderson's sepulchral lighting and Anthony Ward's red and black set suggest hell and damnation. Of Hedda's own making? Is this a hell she is in command of, or the hell-fire she is roasting in?

Like Lövborg's manuscript, once cast on the flames (a melodramatically lit scene - almost gothic horror), for her there is no way back. Or is there? If there is, she can't see it.

Rosamund Pike does not highjack the play - more Grace Kelly than the 'highway woman' (or the Bond girl which she's been) depicted on the posters in red dress, hair flying, brandishing two antique pistols - but she would be the reason for seeing it. A subtle performance, which can only get better, as this travelling production continues, with hopes of coming to rest in the West End.

And she draws laughter from the audience with her well-timed delivery. Now that's an actress in command of her role. If only she were surrounded by more convincing portraits. I sensed an uneasy rapport amongst the players. Maybe, it's early days.

Fine actor though he is, Robert Glenister is far too robust, too assured, as her supposedly mild husband, whereas Tim McInnerny could be more sinister and less the cat that's got the cream, and Colin Tierney's bearded Lövborg looks the part, though I've seen this role played closer to the edge in the past.

Anna Carteret is almost too good for the cameo role of Aunt Juliana, another kind woman, happy in her straightjacket. No existential pain there - long subsumed in caring for others.

Zoe Waites as plain Mrs. Elvsted on the other hand, all agitated trembling and tumbling words, is the perfect foil to Pike's chilling performance - she dared when Hedda couldn't. She's the generous life force in counterpoint to Hedda's mean spirit.

Whilst Hedda takes her fists to the unborn child inside her own belly, Mrs. Elvsted with Tesman's help will resurrect the 'child', the manuscript that she and Lövborg so tenderly nurtured. Hedda is superfluous.

Allison Vale reviewed this production at Bath.

Reviewer: Vera Liber