When I discovered that the third play in the Festival of Chaos season was to be Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler I was slightly disappointed, as we had only recently seen another production at the Oxford Playhouse with Rosamund Pike and Tim McInnerny. Why couldn’t it be Ghosts? Or The Master Builder? Or Rosmersholm?
However, it’s an inspired choice. It dovetails perfectly with The Bacchae and Blood Wedding as a fine example of when someone goes against the grain and does something completely unsuited to their times, society and mores. Hedda has all the hallmarks of a Dionysian character, as director Laurie Sansom points out in his very useful programme notes. A bully as a child, Hedda as a young woman has undefined but we guess potentially impure liaisons with the writer Lovborg, which come to an end when he seeks the equivalent of 19th century Rehab. She is now stuck with her worthy but dull and completely incompatible new husband; but when Lovborg returns, Dionysus within her comes to the surface, not only in how she reacts with him, but in her feelings of jealousy and revenge with the feeble Mrs Elvsted, with whom Lovborg now seems romantically entwined, and also how she deals long term with her whole life situation. It is an exquisite play, and this production brings forward all the delicacies of the plot and brings to life real people with real emotions contrasting strongly with the reserved restrictions of the era.
The set is extremely well devised, with four distinct acting areas each going back further and smaller away from the stage, giving an additional visual suggestion of depth to Ibsen’s words and characters. There’s also the garden area outside the French Windows where characters go to smoke and their lurking outside enhances the feeling of claustrophobia. The lighting works really well, with the different times of day nicely suggested coming through the windows. I won’t spoil it for you, but the lighting in the final minute of the play focusing on the back door is stunningly effective.
Emma Hamilton plays Hedda Gabler with immense subtlety. Intensely manipulative, revengeful, cruel, deliberately hurtful; but with the ability to turn on the sweetest of smiles, you can absolutely understand why Tesman fell for her. Her words say one thing but her body says something else; you’ve never seen anyone throw away dying flowers with such purpose. Tesman’s possession of Lovborg’s manuscript opens up a range of possibilities for Hedda, and you know she’s going to do something wicked with it but you can’t quite tell what; and that’s partly down to Ibsen’s great writing but also Ms Hamilton’s superbly plotting facial expressions. Technically, she speaks with great clarity – always appreciated – and she brings forward all the light and shade of Hedda’s character. The last Hedda we saw, Rosamund Pike, started as a bitch, maintained bitchiness throughout and ended as a bitch. Emma Hamilton’s is a far more rounded and satisfying interpretation as she made Hedda’s motivations and emotions really clear – whilst still being a bitch.
The whole cast is excellent. Jack Hawkins as Tesman is completely convincing as the “good” man, but insensitive to the needs of others (especially his wife) and more engaged with his cerebrum than any other part of his body. His childish enthusiasm for all the things Hedda finds tedious is a brilliant portrayal of how different the two characters are. There’s a lovely scene where Hedda is taking Lovborg through the photograph album and calls on Tesman to explain the pictures. He takes her sarcasm as a compliment; it really sums up so much about both of them.
Jay Villiers is Judge Brack and superbly blends the sophisticated charm of his influential position with a steely determined sense of self-preservation. It’s an immaculate performance, both amusing and slightly threatening. I also liked Lex Shrapnel as Lovborg, all wild haired and distressed, feeling the pain and torture of every moment, strong against temptation at first, only to give into Dionysus and his alcohol to shattering effect later. He’s a fine actor, very much a chip off the old block as I remember really enjoying his father John’s expressive performance as Andrey in Jonathan Miller’s 1976 production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
Matti Houghton is great as the earnest Mrs Elvsted, blindly optimistic about her relationship with Lovborg, thinking Hedda can be trusted with her private matters, seeing her dreams come to nothing, but desperate to be useful, as when she is helping to piece together the manuscript. She’s a rabbit caught in the headlights of Hedda’s manipulations, and she really conveys well the vulnerability of the character. There are also excellent performances from Sue Wallace as the very kindly and supportive Aunt Julle and Janice McKenzie as the put-upon and fearful maid Berte.
It’s an elegant production with great clarity of text – this is Andrew Upton’s adaptation, seen on Broadway in 2006 with Cate Blanchett as Hedda – and a satisfying concentration on the emotional motivations of the characters. Although I’ve seen or read Hedda Gabler four or five times before, I came away feeling that this is the first time that I really understood this play. Superb.