A lone chair surrounded by a sea of screwed-up paper – the reviewer’s lot. The actor’s too, in this misconceived production of Ibsen’s psychological masterpiece, as Hedda Gabler’s passions and complexities are reduced to the absurdity of six actors walking in circles round a battered old carver.
Director Terje Tveit believes that the British theatre is too conservative, too resistant to experimentation. Well, it depends where he chooses to look. For every Richard Eyre-directed John Gabriel Borkman, a 1996 NT production he much disliked (as did I), there is a Polly Teale with her insightful, expressionistic take on A Doll’s House (Shared Experience, 2000). As for conservatism, tell that to Mitchell, McBurney, Barrett or Goold. Tveit’s thesis is nonsense; there is no resistance to experimentation in our theatre, only to rubbish.
Scarred by her upbringing as the daughter of a military general, stifled by the boredom of a loveless marriage and the prospect of endless domestic misery, Hedda feels paralysed by her locked-in life. She is wilful, spiteful and possibly pregnant; she longs to scream but can’t, so instead she distracts herself by seeking to control other people’s destinies, chiefly that of the writer Eilert Løvborg (Fanos Xenofós). Unfortunately for Hedda, the lubricious Brack (Matthew Williamson, far too young) enjoys a similar hobby.
Crucial to this play are the interactions between the characters; yet Tveit’s conceit of stripping away set, furnishings and props also extends to the actors’ proxemics and eye contact. Little remains for his cast but to play with themselves, as it were, which might explain the propensity of Hedda (Sarah Head) to fiddle with her hair all evening.
In the circumstances it is understandable that the breath of life is missing from most of the performances, with Rosalind Stockwell’s Aunt Juliane alone transcending the prevailing mediocrity, but does vocal delivery really have to plod this badly? There is so much dead air during exchanges, and the collective tempo rhythms are so unyielding, that an interval-free two-hour running time feels twice that.
Gone from Tveit’s production are Ibsen’s own symbols: the funereal flowers that welcome Hedda to her new home, the general’s portrait and duelling pistols (a modern-day street shooter takes their place) – even the telling use of Hedda’s maiden name has been excised from the title. Instead, we have grating new age music, modern jazz – oh, and that sea of screwed-up paper. Whatever can it signify? Løvborg’s missing manuscript? Hedda’s messed-up mind? No, it’s the remains of the play. Poor Ibsen.
- Mark Valencia