The programme makes director Matthew Lloyd’s intentions plain when he refers to the comedy in Ibsen’s work and Gillian Kearney, playing Hedda, comments that Mike Poulton’s new translation has made the play “somewhat more humorous”. Up to a point it works well enough: the unusually pacy production maintains a brisk narrative drive and the play gains from savouring the callous humour of Judge Brack and the irony of the marital misalliances.
However, something’s not quite right when the audience finds Tesman’s bleak, “We should never have married”, a good laugh line and regards the premonitory menace of Hedda’s playing with pistols as a funny visual gag.
The rapid pace is, in fact, a mixed blessing. Act 1 romps merrily through Ibsen’s rather dense exposition, unexpectedly reminding us that Hedda and The Importance of Being Earnest date from the same decade. It entertains, but much is lost in terms of creating nuances of character and controlling atmosphere and audience reaction. The production has plenty of style – in particular, Ruari Murchison’s elegant and superbly detailed set – but it’s a style that is dangerously comfortable.
Without characters of sufficient stature, the story can seem silly, with a neat plotting of confrontations worthy of a soap opera. Hedda has just returned from an extended honeymoon with the obsessively academic Jorgen Tesman. Her boredom and frustration are speedily established before her former lover, reformed alcoholic Ejlert Lovborg, his current muse, Mrs. Elvsted, and the jovially predatory Judge Brack help build up moral dilemmas, tragic possibilities and hints of social disgrace.
At the centre of these is the enigmatic Lovborg who, in a state of sober responsibility, has produced a best-selling cultural history and become a challenger to Tesman for his coveted professorship. Yet this is also the man who, once lured to the debaucheries of Brack’s drinking party, will embrace disgrace like an old friend.
Though clearly drawn, the characters of Hedda and Lovborg (Daniel Weyman) are rather small-scale: Gillian Kearney conveys the boredom, the spite and the snobbery of Hedda effectively, but not the passion and aspiration. Tom Smith (Tesman) and Jasper Britton (Brack) turn in accomplished, attractive and amusing performances, but again in the spirit of Ibsen-lite, the former delightfully bumbling, but not really convincing as a high-powered academic, the latter leaving the murkier depths of Judge Brack unexplored.
With so much of the audience’s enjoyment coming through laughter, it’s difficult for Ibsen’s powerful social drama to assert itself as anything stronger than melodrama.
- Ron Simpson (reviewed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse)