Brief Encounter with ... Heather Gardner's Elisabeth Hopper:Date: 22 March 2013
Heather Gardner is a fresh take on Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. The powerful and emotionally charged play about a woman's separation and isolation from the affluent, materialistic society of which she is a part will be set in 1960s Edgbaston, Birmingham. Here, Elisabeth Hopper, who plays Heather in Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s production of Heather Gardner briefly talks us through the show.
Set in Edgbaston, Birmingham in 1962, Heather the daughter of the late General Gardner has just returned from a 6 month honeymoon around Europe with her bookish new husband George Desmond. What should have been the perfect trip is ruined by the creeping realisation that she is not ready for the settled life her husband has planned for them.
The couple are welcomed to their new home by George’s overbearing Aunt June, who brings news that a certain stranger from Heather’s past is back in town and whose dangerous presence threatens her new life. As Heather goes deeper into her own self-deceit she finds herself increasingly alone amongst people who neither understand her or know how to help her.
It's set in Birmingham 1962 for a start, instead of Norway in 1890 and that brings with it a whole new context. I think Robin's (writer Robin French) adaptation brings a warmth to the icy poise of Ibsen's original. Our play is about the death of the conservatism of the 50's, the crumbling empire colliding with a new freer way of living that is completely at odds with the stiff upper lip of Heather’s upbringing. I really hope the two can be seen as separate plays, it's an adaptation, and whilst granted it still contains the same themes as the original, Robin French has definitely put his own take on it.
Heather and Hedda are both trapped by circumstance but Heather is a child of the Empire, her father, the only man she could ever truly love, a celebrated war hero. This is intrinsic to all of the decisions she makes, her obsession with bravery and power control her more than any other character in the play. It was difficult taking on Heather because Hedda Gabler is one of my favourite plays and I felt unsure at the beginning of rehearsals and kept wanting to bring things in from the Ibsen. I quickly learnt that instead of comparing the characters, I needed to treat them as two totally separate individuals. Robin’s adaptation provided Heather with motivations that are actually very different from Hedda's. Heather is less a desperately trapped wife and more a woman obsessed by power and an archaic sense of honour.
Working with Trevor was a fantastic experience and opportunity for me, especially as it was one of my first professional jobs. Starting on 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead' meant that I got to understand his way of working from a distance, so when it came to rehearsing for Miranda in 'The Tempest' I had a better idea of what to expect from his rehearsal process. I was incredibly well protected and supported by Trevor and all of the actors I got to work with. It was the most incredible learning curve and whenever I wasn't on stage I would sit in the wings and just soak it all in. My favourite part was watching Ralph Fiennes deliver his 'Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves...' speech, it was a master class and amazing to watch him hold the audience so completely.
Whatever you think about adapting a classic or putting it in a regional context it's great to be able to bring this kind of theatre to a wider audience. The design is stunning and quite 'Mad Men-esque', there are some amazing costumes and it looks beautiful. It's also a really brilliant cast, and Mike Bradwell (director) has done what he does best and got under the skin of the text, it's been a fascinating rehearsal process and I would encourage anyone to come and see it.
It's also a really exciting time for the Birmingham Rep as they prepare to move into their new theatre in this, its centenary year.
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