First published in December 1890, Hedda Gabler was immediately translated into English by the Scottish theatre critic William Archer and premiered in London, April 1891. As a realistic portrait of modern life it observes the social mores and manners of marriage at the time of women's fight for emancipation - the New Woman. As Ibsen himself described, “What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions and human destinies, upon a groundwork of certain social conditions of the present day.”
Nigel O’Hearn, resident playwright at Palindrome Theatre in Austin Texas, has conceived a new contemporary translation, adapting the dialogue and time frame without destroying the sense of place, characterisation, or psychological power of Ibsen’s original storyline.
The attic room at Hill Street theatre is ideal to set the stage for the Tesman’s drawing room. In the black box space, there’s a table and half a dozen distressed-pine Shaker-style chairs. The sound of rain and thunder is chilling, adding to the claustrophobic, closed-in ambience of their home.
George, an historian, and his wife Hedda have just returned from an extended honeymoon, and she is clearly not happy. Academic research for his book keeps him intellectually occupied day and night, but she is already suffocating within the constraints of married life. Hedda is curt and rude to Berte, the housekeeper. Snapping, quick-fire conversation between husband and wife – “What did you mean?” and “Something bothering you?” is reminiscent of a scenario between an alienated couple in a Woody Allen movie.
George is portrayed by Nathan Osburn as a patient, caring man, seemingly oblivious to his wife’s behavior while Robin Grace Thomson captures Hedda’s sullen, selfish personality with a languid tone, her cool attitude all part of her mystery, her independent mind, her sexual attraction. As the title of the play shows, she retains her maiden name still very much her father’s child, daughter of General Gabler, rather than her husband's wife.
And so the tightly-written plot on marriage, relationships, competition for a university post, and academic manuscripts ensues: social occasions over tea with Hedda and her childhood friend Thea Elvsted, and over a glass of punch with the quietly, sensitive writer Eilert Lovborg sparkle with heated debate, anger and jealousy.
Scenes are well choreographed, where Thea (a gentle Gwyneth Paltrow manner and voice from Chase Crossno), sits awkwardly or stands nervously at the side and never takes centre stage. Yet she has achieved so much as a literary muse, inspiring Eilert to write a sociology masterpiece –a book which is symbolically “their child”.
Hedda has achieved nothing and is simply bored with life and with George – she cannot stand “to be with someone all the time every day”. As a significant gesture, George holds her hand possessively in the company of Mr Lovborg and Judge Brack. All she can do is seek revenge.
Staging is neat and minimalist, using handheld flash lights, rain water, a few props stored in child’s toy box and stylish blend of classic-contemporary clothes.
O’Hearn has brilliantly re-imagined Ibsen’s 19th century social drama to paint a fresh, convincing portrait of the tragic heroine, as if set in a modern day Scandinavian city suburb. The dark mood throughout is menacing, threatening, and ominous in this intimate, fast paced, astutely acted and crisply directed show. Think “Wallander” meets “Desperate Housewives” with a splash of Woody Allen’s fatalistic, ironic view on life, and you might get the picture.
Show times: until 29 August (not 17, 24), 2.15pm
Ticket Prices: £6 - £8