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7th April 2024

Hedda review: A misguided imitation of Ibsen’s masterpiece

Contact hosts Here to There Productions’ for a version of Hedda Gabler that is almost as painful as a genuine gunshot wound
Hedda review: A misguided imitation of Ibsen’s masterpiece
Photo: Hedda @ Contact Theatre PR

Walking into the Contact’s auditorium to see Hedda, you’re met with a plastic set slathered in gaudy red paint. With fake books and felt flowers, you would be right if you assumed you were about to watch something without tact and grace.

Hedda has been promised to be an “inspired new interpretation” of Henrik Ibsen’s renowned Hedda Gabler. The original play is drenched in decadence, a desire for beauty, and a search for recognition of the intelligent female mind, yet this production seems to bypass all of this.

TW: Sexual violence, depression and suicide.

Hedda follows the newly married Hedda Tesman (Alexandra Whitworth) as her husband (David Hubball) frets over his academic career as his professional rival, Eilert Lövborg (Robert Hamilton), arrives back in Oslo. Lövborg is followed by his writing partner and lover (Hedda’s ex-school friend) Thea (Monica Nash), who wants to keep Lövborg on the wagon to publish their book together.  Through all of this, most of the characters are challenged by Judge Brack (James Parsons), who initially is an outlet for Hedda to bemoan her marriage until his charm becomes shot through with his sordid conniving plans. While all this is happening, questions hang over Hedda’s pregnancy, and Tesman’s aunt visits regularly to give news of the other aunt’s declining health.

Spoiler: The play culminates in Hedda killing herself after rising pressures, the threat of sexual violence from Brack and news of Lövborg’s own suicide. Yet, there is more drama in explaining the plot than in the actual performance.  I see no reason for labelling this production as  ”new” and “inspired” or even why the title had to change, other than potential issues with accessing rights. The script was painfully out of touch. For example, it included a joke that deliberately used a homophobic slur to get a laugh, which was obviously not taken well.  In short, you can tell that this is Andrew Whittle’s first translation and that Whittle does not cater to the modern audience.

Berthe, the maid (Sarah Lynne Kordas), who was played with a cockney accent more suitable for Oliver! than Ibsen, speaks to how class in this production was used solely for humour. Aunt Juliana (Melanie Revill) plods onto the stage to begin Act I; it is clear that this production has taken the airless, claustrophobic, oppressive atmosphere for slowness and aridness that should have no place in anything to do with Hedda Gabler.

From here, it takes a while to get going, being unsure of itself with actors walking on stage, almost surprised to find themselves there, waiting for people’s lines to finish so they can say theirs. The general atmosphere was one of a rollicking, Victorian comedy of manners put on in the village hall to cheer the neighbourhood. Yet Contact is not a village hall but a respected urban theatre and Hedda Gabler is one of the most influential tragedies in the development of feminist theatre.

There was a touch of melodrama about the piece, which cheapened the entire thing. I understand that it is all set in one room, and most of the interesting, plot-driven scenes happen off-stage, but I do not think that is an excuse to produce a piece without a pulse or any real sense of tragedy.

Before the eponymous Hedda had even walked onto the stage, I expected that this production would only be concerned with the surfaces rather than having any depth. Whether that was the plastic gowns, the shoddy lighting design, the sound cues being five seconds behind or even the characterisation itself.

When Whitworth entered, there were two striking things: the abrasive red lipstick (which was out of place in the Victorian setting), and the stuck-on-posh voice that her lines were delivered in. Hedda would be played as a haughty, bored madam rather than a woman genuinely on the edge of a depression, trying to create meaning for herself and find some semblance of joy in life whilst being controlled by the rigid, uncaring patriarchs in her life. Whitworth also made the interesting decision of caressing her stomach occasionally, which took away from the crucial idea that Hedda does not in any capacity want the child inside her.

Whitworth was not alone in this cartoonish characterisation. Each time a new character was introduced, there was a gradual disappointment in seeing how the company’s flatness desecrated Hedda Gabler slightly more. The flatness in performance speaks mainly to weak direction rather than bad actors. For example, Judge Brack is a challenging character to try and get right, with his flirtations that turn into threats of sexual assault and his charm that turns into menace, yet it is a shame this production did not even try. Parsons delivered each line like a cartoon gentleman offering a cigar, arms crossed, legs crossed, folded into the sofa, finger-wagging – clearly the epitome of dangerous charm. Hamilton also enjoyed shouting his lines rather than finding any jeopardy or passion in the play. This bovine attitude to material genuinely made Hedda quite hard to watch.

The script clearly leans quite heavily on Patrick Marber’s 2016 translation but without flare and style and with a pace of slow, false, posh vowels.  Whittle has stripped the original play of its decadence and replaced it with many things and surfaces which, at best, add nothing to the performances and, at worst, actively take away from them. As for the performances themselves, they never really developed much further than the horror of watching actors play “the brilliant actor who lights up the stage” rather than actually their characters, which this production misunderstood anyway.

It is hard to say, but this production genuinely had no saving grace. Where there should have been decadence, there was vulgarity; where there should have been passion, there was boredom. In one word, the entire thing was simply ugly. The production felt like it was trying to be true to the original in ways that (like the entire production) were surface-level. It seemed important to this production to have these huge, overbearing portraits on the set, only for Hubball to be able to point at them when mentioning that the name of the unborn child could be one of their dead fathers’ names. These huge, overpowering pieces are set for one line, one brief mention. Maybe this was some attempt at characterisation, but these characters’ intention, drive, or passion faded away like the random Coldplay music at the beginning of Act III.  At points, what was happening was genuinely laughable, and when someone walked out in Act III, I understood why, though it did seem a shame to waste their £20 ticket.

Hedda runs for two and a half hours and feels like it.  Ultimately, seeing Hedda at Contact felt like watching a misguided, mistranslated imitation of Hedda Gabler, a version that was too caught up in the lace and brocade of the play’s original 1890 context to see that at the heart of Hedda Gabler is a play concerned with charting the descent into pure tragedy at the hands of a patriarchal culture of control and forceful desire. You would expect more from a production that has been running in various forms for over a year, yet that expectation would be unfounded.

Hedda is a production by Here to There Productions, which runs until April 6 at Contact. It continues its tour until May 4.

You can buy tickets here.

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