While it is always joyful to hear professional British actors mispronounce Norwegian proper names, being a compatriot of Henrik Ibsen is helpful in other ways too, when seeing his plays performed in English. The translation and subsequent adaptation may illuminate a specific aspect of the text, or even help you see it in a different way altogether. What first struck me when I saw Ivo van Hove’s staging of Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre in London, was that it is very funny.
The play details a few days in the life of Hedda Gabler, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage to the academic Jørgen Tesman. Constricted by the expectations placed on her gender (the play was first performed in Germany in 1891), Hedda, when not toying with the pistols inherited from her father, finds no other way of channelling her sharp intelligence than by manipulating, and eventually destroying those around her. The theatre program includes Ibsen’s preliminary notes for the play, one of which reads: “Women have no influence in public affairs. So they want to influence individuals spiritually.” The themes of spiritual influence as well as intellectual stimulation are recurring throughout the play, and constitute one of the plot’s major conflicts.
Van Hove’s staging of the Norwegian classic (that has been dubbed “The female Hamlet”) is in a new adaptation by English playwright Patrick Marber. Marber has tackled psychosexual drama before in screenplays for films such as Notes on a Scandal (2006) and Closer (2004), and therefore seemed well equipped for the task. In London I found that he had expanded upon Hedda’s caustic wit, adding a comic timing that resulted in a refreshingly upbeat first act. (“You stay out as long as you like. Stay forever.”)
When I now go to see the play performed with a new cast at the Norwich Theatre Royal, I find that this detached sarcasm had been replaced with feistiness: Whenever men and women appear on stage together, flirting will ensue. Understudy Cate Cammack, as opposed to regular Lizzy Watts, played Hedda on the opening night. The Company Stage Manager explains how understudy Cammack’s version is closer to that of Ruth Wilson (Jane Eyre, The Affair), who played the role in London last autumn. While the understudy retains some of the Wilson’s restless spitefulness, Cammack also brings a vulnerability to Hedda and has no problem communicating the character’s helplessness in the final act.
The ensemble as a whole works well together; Abhin Galeya plays an energetic, usually barefoot Tesman who is blind to his wife’s suffering. Annabel Bates spends a lot of time on the stage floor as Thea Elvsted, Hedda’s old school friend who is unwittingly entangled in the latter’s manipulations, whilst Adam Best is menacing as the blackmailing Judge Brack, if sometimes slightly over the top in his evil sexuality. Richard Pyros brings a desperate energy to Eilert Løvborg, Hedda’s old flame and Thea’s current soul mate, which becomes moving in Løvborg’s most desperate hour.
Van Hove’s decision to keep Tesman’s maid Berte on stage throughout the entire play seems puzzling until you realise how she may very well represent what Hedda could become; a subjugated housewife without a will of her own. When not bossed around by the other characters, she silently oversees the drama from her chair on stage left, never interfering but making sure that our increasingly desperate heroine is always under surveillance.
Hedda Gabler is being performed at Norwich Theatre Royal from Thursday 7 – Saturday 11 November 2017.