Review: Hedda Gabler

by Jane

Kate Cheel and Alison Bell, photo by Shane Reid.

Kate Cheel and Alison Bell, photo by Shane Reid.

The house lights drop. The music rises, thumping through the auditorium. Half-light on stage. Hedda Gabler (Alison Bell) stands in the doorway. Stressed. Out of place. She moves the couch. It’s in the wrong place. Sits. Rubs her eyes. Stressed. Blackout.

Considered one of the greatest female roles of the repertoire, Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler comes roaring into the 21st Century in this contemporary adaptation by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Geordie Brookman. The dialogue is contemporary, formalities and the maid have been dispensed with, the characters wield iPhones, yet this faithful adaptation leaves the structure and major beats of Ibsen’s text intact.

While the characters keep their Norwegian names and the location is never explicitly stated, the spirit of Murray-Smith’s text is that of Australia, perhaps almost chiefly for Hedda’s relationship with guns. Murray-Smith’s Hedda is an anomaly in this society for owning guns at all, not simply for being a woman who owns them. Here, inherited and never registered, “you should have turned then in”, says Brack (Terence Crawford), a reference to Australia’s 1996 gun reforms. Indeed, because of this, it’s almost impossible to see this work having the same relevancy in contemporary America.

Perhaps one of the dangers in adapting Hedda Gabler to a contemporary context is the way that women’s place in society has changed in 120 years. Ibsen’s women, his Hedda and his Nora in particular, were revolutionary in their portraits of middle-class women unhappy with their lives, questioning society, and, ultimately, taking control of their own destinies – in radically different fashions. It would be all too easy for a contemporary Hedda to not ring true: while women are still under many pressures and societal expectations, today’s women are, on the whole, more activated both inside and outside the home. Yet, Murray-Smith’s adaptation brings with it startling relevancy, none more so in the ever-prevailing expectation and tension on women to become mothers: here, this conversation feels shocking but in no way false.

When we meet Hedda she has assumed the name of Hedda Tessman. And indeed, in 2009 Indiana University associate professor Laura Hamilton said only 5-10% of American women keep their name on marriage. ‘Choice!’, yells that ever catch-cry of feminism, but it’s impossible to ignore the historic connotations that come along with the name change: those of ownership and assuming your partners identity for the good of society and the family unit. Those who choose to not change their name are still the minority, that choice, therefore, holding within it much more power and refusal against the norm.

In a 2013 context, Hedda’s choice – made under whatever such pressures – feels even more so about the need to play the part of the loving wife. Is her life, then, a game she is trying to escape, or is this just another move in that game? Ibsen, however, refused to submerge his Hedda under the identity of her husband. In Ibsen’s eyes, and therefore ours, she remains defiantly Hedda Gabler.

Yet, still, despite the strands that ring true, so much has changed there is the very real possibility Murray-Smith’s Hedda could still strike false. And under a lesser actor, there is still a danger of this happening. Bell, however, brings depth and weight to this woman so that her plight feels true even today. Asked why she choose to marry Jorgan (Cameron Goodall), she succinctly replies, “my time was up”, and behind Bell’s eyes swim years of a story we are not told, but which the weight of Hedda lies upon. She feels like a woman exhausted, worn down and out by the world. Hurt, perhaps, in ways we never know.

Refreshingly relaxed, Bell’s Hedda has a droll earthiness. A ruffling of the hair, a smirk on the lips, a darting of the eyes; her life a game and the rest merely pawns. Bell is ever present on the stage, constantly calculating. At any stage during the production, even when half obscured by curtains, you can watch her thinking, reacting, being. Her energy is addictive, and it is in her that the audience invests their energy. Her ruinous spirit is fun, and, somehow, still calls for compassion.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast never quite relax into their positions the same way Bell has. Nathan O’Keefe’s Lovborg comes closest. His baggy, stretched woolen jumper and oversized pants (costumes by Ailsa Patterson), overwhelm him into a jittering mess. Hedda and Lovborg circle each other, skirting the outside of the stage, Brookman’s tight choreography pairing them off in a taut dance against each other: where Hedda uses her intellect for her own amusement, Lovborg is consumed by his. O’Keefe’s struggle with this, and with Hedda, give some of the strengths of this production. Similarly, Crawford’s Brack is largely solid, and strongest when he and Hedda are left to play off against each other.

Kate Cheel appears too young to have been “in the year below” Hedda at school, and doesn’t give a strong enough performance to overcome this incongruity. Her Thea is too performative: Cheel holds within her great tension, you can see the process of acting in a way you can never observe in Bell, and she never relaxes into Thea to make her real – or sympathetic.

Goodall, too, feels like he is pushing his characteriation and performance too far. The opening dialogue of the work between Goodall and Carmel Johnson as Aunt Julle is stilted, veering into farce. Paterson’s costuming pairs Hedda’s effortless comfort in fashion against a slightly comic Jorgan, and this costuming seems to push Goodall’s characterisation. There are moments when he relaxes into the world, most often in moments of silence, and hopefully he will find more of these through the run. After the opening scene, too, Johnson seems to relax more into her character and the scenario, but rarely feels truly present.

One wall of glass windows overlooks a burnt out shell of a garden, the other wall exposed bricks of limestone: Geoff Cobham’s house brings together the images of the contemporary and the traditional in a reflection of the script. His lighting is both used practically and evocatively: from a simple warm yellow glow illuminating the house will grow strange sharp shadows and harsh white lights, a beast of discomfort consuming their lives.

The deep base of the dubstep reverberates through the theatre and the auditorium in DJ TR!P’s sound design physically felt by the audience. There is room, though, it feels, for this to have been truly pushed further and create a true sense of tension and discomfort to build the anxiety of the work. From this submerging sound design, Brookman builds stark silences into the work. There is breathing room in which he gives his characters time to think, to wordlessly play with each other, to play with the emotions of the audience as we watch them think and contemplate. It’s in these moments, particularly, he best uses Cobham’s set and Bell’s power as an actor, placing her downstage front and centre: as life goes on behind her, she is in front of us as we just watch her tick.

Hedda Gabler remains under Bell’s power resolutely to the end. While Ibsen had his final moments played off-stage, Murray-Smith and Brookman bring these moments to the fore in front of the audience: their Hedda is performing until the very end.

State Theatre Company of South Australia presents Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Joanna Murray-Smith. Directed by Geordie Brookman, set and lighting design by Geoff Cobham, costume design and associate set design by Ailsa Paterson, associate lighting design by Ben Flett, composition by DJ TR!P. With Alison Bell, Kate Cheel, Terence Crawford, Cameron Goodall, Carmel Johnson and Nathan O’Keefe. At the Dunstan Playhouse until May 18. More information and tickets.