IBSEN’S Hedda Gabler, considered one of the greatest European plays of the 19th century, has had a radical re-working by Irish playwright Brian Friel.
First seen in Dublin in 2008, it is at Salisbury Playhouse until 2nd April, only the second English production (the first was at the Old Vic starring Sheridan Smith) Friel has retained all the essential elements of the original, but introduced a modernity and lyricism that makes this story of a bored and selfish woman more accessible for a 21st century audience.
His Judge Brack, usually seen as a venal old man who blackmails Hedda into desperate action, is here an attractive and manipulative younger man, inspired by the Americas – the second mass migration of Norwegians to the US happened in the 1880s and early 90s, just as the play was written.
His playful use of Americanisms gives a whole new dimension to his relationship with Hedda, no less threatening but more convincing. Friel’s signature repetitions crank up the menace. As the woman behind me said “It’s building up to something… I don’t know what but I think she’s got a syndrome.”
There seemed to be many in the packed house who had no idea of the plot, so here it is.
Dependable, affectionate and plodding academic George Tesman can’t believe his luck when the headstrong daughter of the commander of the local garrison, Hedda Gabler, accepts his marriage proposal. We meet them on their return from a six-month honeymoon spent researching 10th century rural life in Northern Europe. As you can imagine, Hedda has been bored almost to distraction.
The effect on her friable temper and self-centred obsession has been toxic. She returns to the house Tesman has bought for her (via loans and mortgages) determined to upset his beloved aunts and terrorise the servants.
Before her marriage, Hedda has been involved with a number of men, among them the corrupt Judge Brack and the depressive genius Eilert Loevborg. Both men descend on the newlyweds on the day of their return.
One offers tantalising excitement behind closed doors, balanced by a degree of ownership that Hedda cannot contemplate. The other, whom the mercurial Hedda saw as a fellow independent free spirit, with the capacity to take “beautiful” and dramatic actions, is apparently a reformed character, thanks to the ministrations of a “good woman” Thea Elvsted. Out of control with jealousy, Hedda sets her course for maximum destruction.
It’s not pleasant, but it is a brilliant study of psychology, depending on a subtle performance to lift it from melodrama to tragedy – and to capture the tension that mounts throughout the story.
Hedda Gabler has been played by leading actresses ever since its debut, among them Ingrid Bergmann, Cate Blanchett, Glenda Jackson, Diana Riga and Janet Suzman. All brought their own interpretation to this woman, regarded as the first fully fledged neurotic female protagonist, and one of the greatest female roles in theatre.
I can’t remember it better done than by Kirsty Bushell in Gareth Machin’s stunning Salisbury production. Hedda is not a good person, but it is a GREAT CHARACTER, a horribly recognisable woman, who is driven by a combination of claustrophobic boredom and emotional frustration into capricious acts of selfish desperation.
Ben Caplan (best known as Sgt Noakes in Call the Midwife) follows her lead as a totally convincing flesh-and-blood Tesman whose inexperience with women allows him to be fooled, bullied and ridiculed, by his increasingly infuriated wife.
Judge Brack is played here by David Bark-Jones, all seductive charm with a menacing twist. The iconic Loevborg, almost a (tragic) prototype Norman for Ayckbourn, is Damian Humbly, with Kemi-Bo Jacobs as the devoted Mrs Elvsted, Jane Wymark as Aunt Ju Ju and Petra Markham as the vilified nurse turned maid Berta.
James Button’s clever set provides grandeur with transparency in which the plot unfurls with no possible result but doom.
It is a brilliant production, stunningly performed.
Photographs by Helen Maybanks