This modern Hedda Gabler was sparse, shocking, and posed many questions about power
Ibsen’s classic, Hedda Gabler — a play about chaos, power, and freedom — came to the Lowry Theatre in a modern adaptation by Patrick Marber, in association with the National Theatre.
The play centres around the titular Hedda, a headstrong and wild woman who has just returned from her honeymoon — six long months alone with her academic and single-minded husband, Tesman, whom she can hardly stand. She is the centrepiece as the actions of the supporting cast whirl and spiral rapidly around her. Her desire for control and freedom sets in motion events that she ultimately loses total control of.
The staging of this production, directed by Tony Award-winning Ivo van Hove, is the first thing you notice. The stage is vast — and, amazingly, the sound of the actors’ voices still carries with absolute clarity. We see a large room, in which the whole play is set — the new, expensive home of Hedda and Tesman. It is barren, yet simultaneously oppressive.
Altogether, the staging is brilliant — and I take my hat off to the set designer. The cast seem to flee to the edges of it — as if to hide. Every single part of the sparsely laid-out space plays its part. On top of this, harsh and angular lighting casts long, dark shadows across the stage, often showing one character looming over another.
Hedda, performed compellingly by Lizzy Watts, moves about the stage tormentedly; body twisting and contorting even in some of the more relaxed scenes. It gives a sense of how trapped and maddened she feels — brought on by Hedda’s privilege and her regret at where she’s ended up.
She’s quietly vindictive, calmly weaving chaos and disquiet, playing people off one another — but never fully acknowledging the ultimate consequences of her actions.
The play had a great, dark humour to it, making the audience laugh soon after it makes them gasp. Many of the most poignant and most important lines stay with you for being amusing too. “My calling is to bore myself to death!” Hedda cries, as her husband arrives — “And here is my assistant”.
Watts was backed up by a strong supporting cast — including the brilliant but fragile Lovborg, played by Richard Pyros, manipulative Brack, played by Adam Best, and busybody Aunt Juliana, portrayed by Christine Kavanagh.
However, the production was let down somewhat by Annabel Bates’s Thea. An important character in the play, Hedda is threatened by Thea and acts to ruin her happiness. However, her portrayal was a little stunted, disappearing among the powerful characters around her.
Much of the play came across as lacking in emotion. Perhaps this was intentional — showing how Hedda’s search for meaning is futile, that nobody really cares about her discontent, even to offset the emotional instability of its main character. However, there were tragic and charged moments that just seemed to fall a bit flat. In particular, I never really believed the occasional rages of Tesman.
Hedda Gabler was compelling, shocking, and leaves many questions unanswered. It runs at The Lowry Theatre until Saturday.