Hedda Gabler review: a fluid production that lacks heat

Abbey production of Ibsen’s drama feels stilted

Venue: Abbey Theatre

Date Reviewed: April 15th, 2015

Website: abbeytheatre.ie

Phone: 018872200

Fri, Apr 17, 2015, 14:40

   

***

 

Early on in Ibsen’s drama, and now in Mark O’Rowe’s fluid new version for the Abbey, Hedda Gabler is put on the spot – not a position she is used to. Why would a general’s daughter, newly married, with the home of her dreams, be so deliberately cruel to a dotey old aunt? “I don’t know,” Hedda replies. “I find the impulse comes over me and I can’t resist.”

The way the elegant Catherine Walker delivers that line, with an evasive shrug, may suggest the devouring boredom of a society where, as Ibsen put it, “a woman cannot be herself”. But this Hedda Gabler, intended for a society closer to home, might have been more invested in the answer, genuinely curious about Hedda’s own riddle.

In most versions of the play, Hedda paces the floor nervously through this exchange with her cynical confidant, Judge Brack (Declan Conlon), and throws herself into a chair. Here, on Paul O’Mahony’s exposed and chilly set, receding into an unpainted frame as though still under construction, they sit motionless. O’Rowe’s superb and subtle new version is similarly contained, finessing Ibsenite naturalism into meticulously wrought, unfussy exchanges.

“Wow,” exhales Peter Gaynor’s Tesman, Hedda’s worried husband, at reports of a new publication from his rival, Lovborg (Keith McErlean). “Mmm-hmmm,” says Hedda while sleuthing out the deeper relationship between Thea (Kate Stanley Brennan) and Lovborg, her reckless old flame.

So why does it feel so stilted? In part, as director Annabelle Comyn recognises, that’s the context of the play. We first see Hedda’s home drowning in congratulatory flower bouquets while she gulps in air through the window, suffocated by the baby expectations of Aunt Julle (Jane Brennan) and the threat of social scandal. “But what about all the people?” Hedda asks Thea, who is leaving her loveless marriage to work with Lovborg, in a production fascinated by surveillance.

But Comyn fixates on the mores of costume drama – the rigid postures, the stiff enunciation, the confining furniture – presumably to intermingle eras, but unfortunately stranding the production between them. “Who is Hedda Gabler?” asked a promotional campaign, but the real question is, why does she matter?

This production is unsure, admiring her, fawning over her, adoring her style (our regular relationship with Catherine Walker, in other words), without challenging her. Drumming her hands on a pillow at the prospect of a duel, drilling her fingers to derail a conversation, her head never still on her shoulders, Walker’s is an impatient Hedda rather than a destructive one.

In performance, Walker is equalled only by Conlon: wry, manipulative and easily the best at chair acting, while McErlean’s Lovborg, the supposed bad boy struggling with reform, and the subject of her bacchanalian fantasies, is surprisingly neutered. It makes for a Hedda without heat.

In the play, Hedda’s real match is Thea, a progressive in sheep’s clothing. There is a future for those brave enough to make it, to break roughly with the trappings of the past without caring what people will think. Hedda will never get that, but it feels like a lesson this production might have heeded. Until May 16th

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