Fitting out Ibsen’s frock coat morality in modern gear is best left to the experts, as Thomas Ostermeier’s stunning Berlin Schaubuhne production of A Doll’s House proved at the Barbican a few years ago. This new version of Hedda Gabler at the Gate lacks the courage of its own half-cock convictions, coming across as mere fiddling about.
The script is by Lucy Kirkwood, who made such an impact with Tinderbox, a bawdy night of farce and fireworks in a butchers’ shop, at the Bush in April. Having relocated Ibsen’s post-marital crisis in contemporary Notting Hill, she strains to make it fit and is further handicapped by a disastrously low wattage performance of Hedda in Carrie Cracknell’s production.
As in the Ostermeier Ibsen, there is a split-level interior in Holly Waddington’s design, with Cara Hogan’s febrile, unfocused Hedda first seen lounging in slip and stockings on big cushions. The pad is half-finished, with visible brickwork and semi-rendered plaster walls. Hedda’s hideaway is an offstage cupboard of slinky clothes and coloured lights.
She seems not to be pregnant from the honeymoon in Japan. George Tesman (played by Tom Mison as a silly version of Jake Gyllenhaal) is absorbed in his new book about robotic ants and the map of consciousness, while his sister Julia (Cath Whitefield) – a thirty-three year-old spinster, not the usual maiden aunt – obligingly turns up with his old slippers, or “slip slops.” When Hedda’s childhood friend Thea Eldridge (Alice Patten) arrives in flight from a dire marriage in Scotland, you begin to wonder why no-one’s been e-mailing each other. And where are their mobile phones?
This begins to matter more in the absurd business of Eilert Lovborg’s lost manuscript; or, rather, Eli Longford’s forgotten memory stick. Eli is played with a fine carousing carelessness by Adrian Bower, last seen knocking about in another part of the Norwegian wood with John Simm in Elling. But if the book’s on a stick, it must also be on a machine somewhere, and how come there are pages of notes at the end for George and Thea to work from?
Hedda has to chew the masterpiece (which is hard to swallow) and declare she has eaten Eli’s baby; no burn, baby, burn in this version. Christopher Obi’s Toby Brack (no longer a judge) is a watchful presence, but hardly represents social threat or sexual insinuation. And Hedda’s languid take on her situation doesn’t convincingly allow for a special relationship with her father’s treasured pistols.