Brighton Fringe 2012
A fine rendering of Ibsen’s classic play full of pace and bite.
Sometimes a striking or innovative approach to scenery or make-up can dominate a performance – think those countless adaptations of Macbeth or some other Shakespeare in World War 2 uniforms. SUDS technique of supplying each character in Hedda Gabler with a thick band of eye shadow across their face, is certainly striking but it supports the play and the performance so well that it becomes an intimate and completely believable part of the scenes set before us. Hedda’s red band certainly brings out her broody intensity in an obvious way (though none the worse for that), but Aunt Juliane has a wide green stripe that exactly impresses us with a kind of blue rinse, maiden aunt feel. Poor Tesman is the only one unadorned in this way, pinpointing his position as the most unknowing of these varyingly social animals.
This is a well crafted adaptation from an editing point of view as well – its running time of 80 minutes is less than two thirds of other full versions, but it still conveys the full impact of the play – I went back to an original text after seeing it and was impressed by the way in which it had been filleted for impact without losing any of the sense and logic. There was an early line that I think was omitted where Hedda says “I am only looking at the leaves. They are so yellow- so withered” – but this had been beautifully picked up in the dry leaves scattered about the stage – I’d thought they framed the fairly sparse stage very well at the time, but reading that line made me think that there had been a very thorough reading of the full text feeding into this adaptation. And there aren’t many adaptations of any play that send you scurrying home to download the Kindle version and read it through.
The performance had terrific pace, accentuated by razor sharp performances from the entire cast. Hedda Gabler’s languorous but intense voice, and dry poised stance was perfectly counter- parted by Tesman’s puppy like demeanour and enthusiasm. Their opposed body language – one tall and poised , the other often hunched over with either worry or enthusiasm were well carried throughout the performance. All the characters deserve mention for their individual performances – Aunt Juliane’s enthusiastic maiden aunt’s affection for Tesman, her good nature overcoming her sense of Hedda’s rejection, Thea Elvsted’s breathless and naive disarray, Ejlert Løvborg’s slightly unhinged desperation, never overplayed, and Judge Brack’s cynical and sinister avuncular manner meant that the play worked as an ensemble.
The familiar vs formal forms of address – Du / de in the original language are always an issue in translation as there is no modern English equivalent. Tesman’s use of an affectionate name for his aunt – Aunt Juju – overcomes this and at the same time accentuates the docile domestic love of Tesman in contrast to Hedda’s cold disdain for this bumbling well-meaning maiden aunt – Hedda will never agree to use the diminutive Juju with its overtones of affection.
Hedda Gabler is a melodramatic play, and as such can strain the credulity of more knowing 21st century audiences, but this adaptation keeps the audience tightly bound. There were some minor quibbles – perhaps Aunt Juliane could have had a little more make up or greyed hair to age her as she rather bounced with youth and vitality, although her speech and mannerisms were perfectly in accord with the maiden aunt’s character. Some attention to practical beginnings of acts / scenes and announcements of intervals could have been smoother and more confident – but these are just details.
So, left with the core of the play, do we have Hedda portrayed as a manipulative villain, frustrated heroine, a live spirit crushed by conformity or a sadly compromised woman who has chosen safe respectability and now bitterly regrets it. The production leans on the side of the manipulative interpretation, but with enough of a rounded context: the urbane and predatory judge, the pressures of conformity vis Ejlert Løvborg’s rejection by society, the real but ineffectual concerns of Thea Elvsted, to give some sympathy for Hedda Gabler while seeing her as clearly responsible for her own choices. The play’s production has successful humour laced and stitched seamlessly throughout to leaven the distress and enormity of the “events” and further point out not just the pressures of respectability, but the sad, corrupt or simply comic ways in which each of the characters have chosen to compromise their lives. It is to this production’s credit that it comes across as a human whole – none of the characters are ciphers or caricatures, we are involved in the particular human dilemmas of each part. The play worked on dramatic and human, symbolic and entertaining levels without sacrificing one thing for another.