Upon arrival at Norwich Theatre Royal, we are invited into the as-of-yet empty auditorium. The stage has been transformed into a geometrically precise box, complete with plastered walls and false concrete flooring (real concrete doesn’t go well with touring).
In Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the play being performed that night, this uninviting and stripped-down container constitutes the newly bought and not yet finished home of Dr Jørgen Tesman and his wife Hedda. Siân goes on to tell us how the stage is constructed to form specific sightlines, as the audience is to feel as limited as Hedda herself. The box office has even refrained from selling some of the fringe seats in the stalls so as not to interfere with this idea of constriction.
We are led onstage. All the objects in Tesman’s sparsely furnished living room are striking: to the left we see a large glass window, almost the length of the entire wall and, in front of it, old paint buckets full of delicate, locally sourced flowers. Two guns rest in a glass case integrated into the back wall; centre stage we find a piano over which Hedda will soon slouch in restless fatigue.
The glass window weighs half a ton, and from behind it we peruse the stage and its inhabitants from an almost zoological perspective, which only strengthens the intended feeling of entrapment. Behind the glass there is a multitude of lamps, and we are told how there are moments in the play where this window serves as the only source of light. As we move backstage, we pass a big, barbecue-like machine that is set to produce the open flames of the fireplace, which plays such a significant part in the third act.
Our last stop is to have a look at the extensive sound system at work in Ivo van Hove’s production. Apart from the occasional piano tune and music by Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, Siân and one of the sound technicians talk of a specific musical note that is played throughout the play, which aims to inspire a feeling of unease in the listener. It’s been said that the tune was played before the speeches of Adolf Hitler, as it created a sense of excitement with his audience when it finally stopped and he entered the stage.
While this anecdote has proved to be impossible to verify, it only helps to establish the underlying sense of disquiet, so integral to many of Ibsen’s plays. The fact that the tune is said to be of Swedish origin and has been put to use in a Norwegian play proves how there is much more to Scandinavia than hygge.
Hedda Gabler is being performed at Norwich Theatre Royal 7th-11th November