Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Mike Poulton
A West Yorkshire Playhouse/Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse Theatres Production
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Matthew Lloyd's new production Hedda Gabler is without doubt the most unsettling account of the play I've ever seen. If Ibsen's gloomy Nordic muse had indulged in a liaison with Oscar Wilde - à la Mrs Elvsted and Lovborg - they may well have produced something like Mike Poulton's heavy-handed adaptation, which surgically removes all the subtlety from the original and turns it into a malign drawing room comedy. This may well be the first Hedda to generate almost as much laughter as The Importance of Being Earnest.
The production opens promisingly enough as the maid Berte (Imogen Bain) arranges vases of flowers in the Tesmans' plush drawing room. Ruari Murichison's handsome set, all maroon walls and scarlet drapes, conjures up the oppressive atmosphere of middle-class life in nineteenth century Norway. When ice maiden Hedda (Gillian Kearney) makes her first entrance in an electric blue gown she looks like a visitor from another world.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case with sets that make full use of a large stage, there is a temptation for actors to take tension-diffusing strolls across it at the drop of a hat. But the real problems are Poulton's insensitively modern script and Lloyd's strangely old-fashioned direction.
We have no difficulty believing that Gillian Kearney's Hedda was a vixen when she went to school - no wonder the young Thea was terrified of her - but she is simply not convincing as a vindictive, unhappily married woman. Her performance is pure Bette Davis in All About Eve mode; we never for a second forget that that she is acting, and her demand that Lovborg (Daniel Weyman) kill himself with one of her father's pistols gets the biggest laugh of the evening.
Tom Smith fares no better as her husband Jorgen, played as a chronically immature - if not infantile - young man who seems to have stepped straight out of a US sitcom. Heaven help the Norwegian university desperate enough to consider appointing him to a Professorship
There is little sense of the depravity lurking under the surface of Ibsen's original. Lovborg's debaucheries and Hedda's voyeuristic interest in them fail to shock, and any ambiguity about the nature of Judge Brack's involvement with his young male friends falls victim to Poulton's zest for accessibility (which too often means "dumbing down"). The stream of nudge-nudge-wink-wink references to back doors and rear entrances sees to that.
And yet it has to be said that the production is compulsively watchable, if only in the manner of an over-the-top soap or a Douglas Sirk film. Jasper Britton's untypically avuncular Judge Brack and Jane Lowe's endearing Aunt Juli are the only characters who really come to life, yet in spite of Poulton and Lloyd's best efforts enough of Ibsen survives to hold the attention.
At the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 11th March
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson