Hedda Gabler

BATS Theatre, Wellington

15/04/2009 - 02/05/2009

Production Details

"I want for once in life to have some power… over someone else’s life… over someone else’s fate…"

Clare Kerrison’s great great grandfather, Hugh Ross, shot a man in a duel on Wellington’s Bowen Street in 1844, in defence of his friend, McDonough’s honour. Later, when McDonough married Ross’ daughter, Ross gave him the pistols as a wedding gift.

Now, Kerrison is using this story to fuel a new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic Hedda Gabler, in which she stars as Hedda. "We wanted to adapt Hedda for today but stay pretty true to the original, but how do you justify owning dueling pistols in the 21st Century? And then I remembered – actually guys, I’ve got this kind of shady ancestor …"

Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is the story of a beautiful and charismatic woman, who desperately seeks life, yet refuses to let herself really live. The Wild Duck capture this volatile character and adapt, crush and throw her story into the vernacular of modern Courtney place.

With only the lives of those who love her, and her inherited pistols to toy with, she snatches to control anything… or anyone… 

The production marks a return acting for Kerrison as she finishes four years working for BATS Theatre as Business Manager. "I’ve kept my hand in, playing improv with WIT, which I love, but a script is a different kind of intensity and I’m loving that too! Especially playing Hedda. I’ve been drawn to her since I was 17."

Designed by Penny Angrik and Ulli Briese (2008 Chapman Tripp Award, Best Lighting Design for Metamophosis) the Wild Duck will use a symbolic set and physical performance styles to discover what traps Hedda in today’s more liberal society.

15 April-2 May (no show Sun/Mon)
BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace, Wellington
or 04 802 4175

Hedda Gabler:  Clare Kerrison
Jörgen Tesman (her husband):  Asalemo Tofete
Julia Tesman (his sister):  Tupe Lualua
Thea Elvsted (a housewife):  Amy Tarleton
Max Brack (a lawyer):  Salesi Le'ota
Ejlert  Løvborg (a nomad):  Michael Ness

Producer:  Fiona McNamara
Production Manager:  Melanie Duncan
Set Design:  Penny Angrick
Lighting Design:  Ulli Briese

Gets you thinking

Review by Lynn Freeman 22nd Apr 2009

Ibsen’s play, but not exactly as we know it.  Set in contemporary Wellington, complete with references to the Blanket Man and the Bucket Fountain, diswashers, credit cards and mobile phones, but still ultimately about a woman boring herself to death and capable of doing anything give herself a sense of power. 

A femme fatale indeed, but one where we are given glimpses of why she is as she is.

The programme tells us that the director and cast, have read as many translations and adaptations of the play as possible, determined to make this 19th century story relevant for 21st century New Zealand audiences.  Making classics relevant is one of the specialties of director David Lawrence and he and his team have done what they set out to do.

Clare Kerrison takes on one of those rare glorious roles for actresses, with breadth and depth, real meat on the bones of the character.  Opening night nerves prevented her from totally nailing the part, her transitions from reflective to jealous to manipulative were a little too rough, but you get the sense she’ll relax into it as the season progresses.  The opening scene reaches into Kerrison’s own life, with the story of her duelling forebear who killed a man.

Amy Tarleton turns a potentially forgettable role, of housewife Thea Elvsted, into something remarkable. 

One of the clever twists in this interpretation sees Hedda marrying into a Samoan family. Asalemo Tofete is a sympathetic husband to Hedda, wildly in love with a woman who couldn’t be more wrong for him, and there’s a nicely understated performance by Tupe Lualua as a woman in desperate need of someone to care for. 

Salesi Le’Ota is very good though a fraction over the top at times as the bitchy lawyer Max Brack, and as Hedda’s nemesis, Ejlert Lovborg, Michael Ness shows us the cracks in Lovborg’s emotional armour.

Penny Angrick’s set is all clean lines and disconcerting mirrors (from the audience’s perspective), and neatly takes us into a house that has in many ways trapped the newlyweds, as Hedda overloads the credit cards.

It’s a production and a perspective which get you thinking – as good theatre should.
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. 


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Ibsen adaptation a minor miracle

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 18th Apr 2009

It could so easily have been crass and embarrassing but David Lawrence’s updating and relocation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler from 1890 Norway to a trendy house in Aro Valley 2009 is in a number of ways a minor miracle.

It starts arrestingly with Hedda brandishing and fondling her great-grandfather’s pistols but there is a South Pacific beat to the music in the background and we quickly learn that she has married Jorgen Tesman, a Samoan academic (Asalemo Tofete), and they have just returned from their honeymoon in Guam where Jorgen found his archeological studies more interesting than Hedda’s charms.

Their neighbour is Max Brack (suavely played by Salesi Le’ota), a wealthy, worldly, cynical, bi-sexual, coke-sniffing lawyer, a very contemporary character but quite consistent with Ibsen’s intentions. Juliane, Jorgen’s aunt in Ibsen’s play, is now Julia (Tupe Lualua), Jorgen’s sister, the one character who is aware of the concerns and needs of others.

Back in town is Ejlert Lovborg (Michael Ness), a nomadic intellectual and possible rival with Jorgen for a position up at Vic, pursued by Thea (Amy Tarleton) who has given up everything for him. Hedda’s past attraction to him is rekindled and her emotional games lead to his death, though not with vine leaves tangled in his hair (the play’s famous image that, I suppose, can’t be changed but it does sound outmoded in a 21st century setting).


Lawrence’s 90 minute production punctuated with freeze-frame moments, eerie electronic music, and scenes in which the lighting (Ulli Briese) and the actors’ use of dramatic gestures and dance-like movements (Hedda and Lovborg reminiscing and Hedda burning his manuscript) are boldly performed and thus compelling, though the likelihood of Lovborg having only one copy of his manuscript in this day and age is a little hard to swallow even if he is computer illiterate.


Despite the lack of a portrait, which Ibsen demands in his script, of General Gabler to illustrate the hold her father (here her great-grandfather) had on Hedda, Clare Kerrison manages to convey this hold through her domineering manner, her erotic handling of the pistols, her impulsive, restless movements, and her talent for boring herself to death.

She is also often sardonically funny, and clearly mad, bad and dangerous to know. A fine performance.
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Thoroughly accessible and highly stimulating reworking of Ibsen’s classic

Review by John Smythe 16th 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. 




John Smythe April 24th, 2009

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.

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