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.