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Hedda Gabler
Adapted by The Wild Duck from the play by Henrik Ibsen
Directed by David Lawrence
The Comfort Hotel Wellington season

at BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
From 15 Apr 2009 to 2 May 2009

Reviewed by John Smythe, 16 Apr 2009

I have to confess I felt dismayed when BATS, of all places, scheduled Hedda Gabler. No sooner have we moved on from the recurrently funded theatres trotting out their annual Ibsen or Chekhov but a co-op of new-generation practitioners leaps astride the old warhorse at the venue we count on most to give us cutting edge new work.

Why? Because an actress - who has, as it happens, been BATS' Business Manager for four years and is now heading off overseas - has always wanted to play the title role. Which is not, in itself, a good enough reason. But it's as good a starting point as any, provided it produces a result that engages us in the themes and content of the play. And it does.

One especially interesting aspect of this group-devised adaptation - set in modern day Wellington, rendered in everyday language and directed by David Lawrence - is that it is not a 'star vehicle'. It places Hedda and her frustrations in a highly credible modern world that is not editorially prejudged, i.e. the suburbs, marriage and academia are not portrayed as stultifying and therefore worthy of her contempt (and ours).

Hedda, her anthropologist husband of six months Jörgen (George) Tesman, their lawyer friend and neighbour Max Brack, and the intellectual 'nomad' with a drink and drugs problem 'Eliot' Løveborg, all went to Victoria University together. And now they are attempting to consolidate who they are by what they do with their lives.

But Hedda has no purpose, no plan, no strategy for fulfilment. While she was the most popular, and intimidating, girl at school, and attracted a coterie of admirers at varsity, she has gone and married the fellow student who walked her home to Aro Valley because she felt sorry for him, he promised to look after her and she lacks the courage to claim her independence and settle on her own vocation.

Now, after a six-month so-called honeymoon in Guam and despite her new home being the very place she once told Jörgen she dreamed of living in, she is bored and is mindlessly inclined to fill the vacuum by punishing the credit card they can no longer afford to have.

In a prologue, Clare Kerrison links her own family history to Hedda's romantic mind-set by brandishing a pair of duelling pistols and telling us, in breathless tones, of the Great Great Great Great Grandfather* who used one to shoot a man in Bowen Street, more specifically in the groin. She clearly finds it outrageously exciting: "Even in 1844, who does that kind of thing?"

It emerges that what people might think constantly vies with her desire to break out - but to where, for what ...? She admits to being a coward and admires those with the courage to make a commitment to something, even if it is to end it all with a flourish. Her sudden, irrational, destructive urges are counterpointed with vulnerable moments of need for connection and meaning that all too quickly morph into envy and distain.

Kerrison has a clear handle on all this and exposes the heart of Hedda more in vivid flashes than in repose (if that's the right word for Hedda). On opening night I was a little unsure as to whether it was the character or the actress who sometimes seemed to be on the outside looking in but on reflection I see it as the character.

This Hedda does not so much feel stifled and trapped (the usual interpretation) as lost in a world where the freedom to be whatever you want can be daunting in itself. The question is, is the behaviour this state engenders a madness that could/should be medicated or the logical outcome of a value system that has somehow failed to get rooted in the realities of life?

Brack has settled into a law firm. Clearly gay ("You know how I like to come in the back way"), he is fiercely loyal and protective towards his 'fag hag' girl friend Hedda. As epitomised with wit and panache by Salesi Le'ota, he is fun yet dangerous, soft yet sharp, sophisticated yet savage: not someone you'd want to cross.

Tesman, for whom Brack is hosting a belated stag party, has spent most of his honeymoon checking out ancient artefacts in Guam and now has expectations of a permanent appointment to a lectureship at Vic. The boyish innocence Asalemo Tofete brings to Tesman's commitments - to his work, his Samoan culture and, of course, to Hedda - is a refreshing change from the fusty fusspot that this character so often becomes.

Even the "desperate, alcoholic, drug-addicted fuck up" Ejlert (Eliot) Løvborg has got his act together, thanks to Thea Elvsted, the hitherto bored wife of a Hawkes Bay wine maker, who has dried him out and got him back in touch with his genius.  Not only has he written and published a popular book - Dancing With The Stars: a cultural history of the universe - but now he is working on a future-focused sequel; a more substantial 'Stephen Hawking' opus, as compared to the lighter fare of his 'Bill Bryson' effort.

Full-bearded Michael Ness is every inch the reformed alcoholic and the brilliant scholar whose paranoia about digital electronic technology and its capacity to be abused and used against us makes him eschew computers and cellphones for the relative safety of a secretary - Elvsted - who faithfully records his dictated manuscript in longhand. The irony is that this approach produces only one copy and no back-up (which is crucial to the plot, of course).

Amy Tarleton's Thea Elvstead embodies all the determination yet vulnerability of a woman who has at last found her role in life, linked into the highest levels of intellectual enquiry. And as George's sister* Julia Tesman, Tupe Lualua convinces us totally that caring for the old and infirm can be a genuinely fulfilling vocation.

"The only talent I have," says Hedda, "is to bore myself to death." She also defines courage as "the ability to know when it's time to go." And somehow her quest to escape the former makes her idealise the latter, with tragic consequences

The Pacifica dimension of this adaptation, which includes Max Brack as a cousin of the Samoan Tesman's (the ailing Rina is Aunty to them all), adds to Hedda's sense of alienation and offers an allegorical resonance: once part of the dominant settler culture, she now faces more of an identity crisis than those who have belonged to this part of the world for centuries longer and are reclaiming their cultural identities while achieving with confidence in palagi terms.

Names are important in exploring this theme. 'George', whose official name appears to be 'Jörgen' (that's how he's listed in the programme) is delighted when, towards the end of the play, Hedda calls him by the name his sister uses: Saiosi. Ejlert reclaims the correct pronunciation of his name ('Eye-lert' rather than 'Eliot') and talks of returning to Norway. But when Løvborg keeps calling her Hedda Gabler, provocatively, she insists her name is now Hedda Tesman.

It turns out that back in their varsity days, she and Løvborg shared a secret and significant late night experience - drug or alcohol-fuelled? - that has somehow bonded them. This is recalled in a highly stylised poetic duologue that seems to articulate the subtext of their doomed mutual attraction as they look at her honeymoon photos.

Director David Lawrence also employs the stylistic device of a freeze-frame at the end of a scene and/or starting the next by cutting straight into dialogue that's already under way, as it were, thereby dispensing with time-consuming entrances, exits and scene-setting exposition. This, the trimming of text and dispensing with the maid character*, distils the four-act play to a dynamic ninety minutes (no interval).

The key turning points are all Ibsen's: Tesman's fear that Løvborg will score his job; Tesman's utter admiration of Løvborg's new manuscript and awareness he could never achieve such excellence; Hedda's perverse quest for power by tempting Løvborg off the wagon; Løvborg's metamorphosis from focused genius into abusive drunkard and his own worst enemy; the loss of the manuscript and the moral challenges it raises in the hands of Tesman and Hedda; Hedda's gift, to Løvborg, of a duelling pistol ...

The inevitable ugliness of the hoped-for beauty in the outcome is as strong as ever, confirming that this adaptation serves rather than distorts Ibsen's intentions.

Penny Angrick's excellent set, superbly lit by Ulli Briese, evokes a modernised two-storey home with three vertical mirrors in the back wall demanding we see ourselves in this picture.

The conventional style that is usually imposed on Ibsen (some say erroneously) is naturalism. Done well, this can transport us into the characters' reality and command our empathy because we recognise and relate to its compelling exposure of the human condition.

Lawrence tends to use meta-theatrical touches throughout that remind us this is a play, which works especially well with non-naturalistic texts (e.g. Shakespeare). Thus with this Hedda Gabler I find myself more the objective observer than the empathising fellow human.

This may be because the cast are still conscious of what they are doing as co-adapters of the text, and have yet to let themselves be these people in these given circumstances. Or maybe The Wild Duck co-operative is more interested in provoking our objective appraisal of these lives and what they imply.

Either way their Hedda Gabler is thoroughly accessible and a highly stimulating reworking of a play clearly worthy of being called a classic.
*Note: [added 9.15pm 16/4] For the record, the mythologized great great (etc) grandfather replaces the General father of Ibsen's original; Tesman's sister Julia replaces his Aunt Juliane; and the dropping of Berte the servant denotes both our relatively classless society and a capacity to deal with exposition with more flair than Ibsen managed.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 



See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);


John Smythe posted 24 Apr 2009, 11:18 PM / edited 25 Apr 2009, 12:00 AM

I have just seen this Hedda Gabler again. All the stylistic issues are resolved: everyone is fully engaged; it is a superb distillation of humanity and inhumanity made extraordinarily accessible without compromising Ibsen's genius at all. It gives us realism no longer confined by the rigours of naturalism (which many scholars say was never Ibsen's milieu in the first place, especially in his later plays).
If anything, moving it on from the suppressed housewife syndrome liberates the themes in an even more interesting way. This Hedda is the girl most likely to … what? At school, university and now, everyone would have had a different answer. The trouble is she has never had any idea of what the answer is and that is her problem.
If this production ends on 2nd May never to be revived that will be a tragedy. It deserves to be seen far and wide. I'd even go so far as to say it transcends, in its own bravery, Colin McColl's celebrated 1990 production (set in 1950s Wadestown), which was invited to the Edinburgh festival and elevated McColl to the pre-eminent director of Ibsen world-wide, even in Oslo.
Well maybe comparisons are odious. Suffice to say we should be just as excited about this David Lawrence-led adaptation as we ever were about McColl's.