Hedda Gabler: Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – a modern Play for Today, 1891 and in 2015
As the audience enters the theatre, Hedda (Nicola Daley) is on stage, resting on the sofa. During this silent “prologue”, time to observe the drawing room of the Tesman’s new matrimonial home.
The setting is Christiania, Norway, 1890. High ceiling, soft grey décor, French windows, white muslin curtains, piano, bookshelves, vases of flowers; a glass partition with two doors leads out to the hallway beyond.
Hedda is the daughter of the late General Gabler, whose portrait is proudly displayed. As the play begins, she has just returned from honeymoon with her husband, George Tesman, an academic.
Arriving to welcome the happy couple is George’s Aunt JuJu (Juliana), who calls her nephew Georgie, as if still a boy. As he talks excitedly about his work, Hedda slips silently into the room. Dressed in a cream silk gown under a plum frock coat. with her dark hair cut in a bob, she exudes the New Woman style of beauty and fashion.
“ How kind of you to visit so early”, she greets their guest with the stress on the word early, not on kind. Her sardonic tone of voice is partly disguised by her practiced air of upper class charm. Hedda looks disdainfully at her husband when he explains that Juliana will visit every day. She refuses to call her Aunt JuJu and later throws a gift of flowers out the window.
Lewis Hart portrays the foppish Tesman in sharply tailored tail-coat, cheerfully unaware of his wife’s simmering frustration, as the seriously bookish writer focuses his mind on a potential professorship.
This version of the play was written by former NT artistic director, Richard Eyre. Apparently the idea came to him at the dentist, when he picked up a copy of Hello featuring an interview “with a rich, posh young woman who was celebrated for being celebrated”. She confessed, without irony, to “having a great talent for boredom” to which Eyre’s response was “Hedda Gabler lives!”.
The dialogue is fresh, modern with a sharp wit bringing out some surprising comedic moments. Hedda’s endless flow of cutting remarks also emphasise the dark humour behind the ultimately tragic narrative.
The next visitor is local pillar of society, Judge Brack with whom Hedda delights, flirtatiously, in relating their travel tales; a dismal time, “meeting no-one of one’s class” and that she had been “bored, bored, bored. …there’s only one thing I have a vocation for – boring myself to death.”
This six month tour of Europe was clearly more of a research trip rather than romantic holiday.
Back in town is her former beau, Ejlert Loevborg, a brilliant writer and Tesman’s rival for academic success. Hedda’s old school friend, Thea, has bravely left a dull marriage to be with Loevborg as a research assistant. Now with cocktail soirees and literary conversations, life may now become more interesting…..
Like a petulant child wanting to get her own way, Hedda starts to play manipulative, seductive games within this social circle – perhaps simply to find purpose in her empty life.
Unfortunately Jack Tarlton’s portrayal of Loevborg is rather over-acted as a tough-talking rebel without a cause, set on self destruction. And Judge Brack, a high-ranking gentleman, is given a curious, lackadaisical performance by Benny Young, with an accent as if impersonating Billy Connolly.
But centre stage for much of the action, Nicola Daley is cool, calculating and beautifully bewitching. Poised perfectly, she has a quiet steely-eyed demeanor, often tossing a haughty look, reminiscent of Lady Mary in Downton Abbey; Daley’s slender frame carries the contemporary-styled Victorian costumes like a fashion model. Think Stella Tennant.
Whether through jealousy, selfishness, a cruel streak or psychotic disorder, as the proud daughter of the aristocratic General Gabler, (now the proud possessor of his pistols), she has learnt to be in control and exert power over others.
Directed with insight and clarity by Amanda Gaughan, meticilous movement, gestures and choreographed scenes all add to the shifting emotional atmosphere of Ibsen’s intimate domestic drama.
What is so inspirational about this artistically-conceived production is Jean Chan’s fabulously creative set and costume design, symbolically reflecting the chilling, thrilling mood and manner of Ms Gabler, the Ice Queen.
Perhaps Jean Chan could create a Hedda inspired designer Collection for A/W 2015!
Royal Lyceum Theatre
20 March – 11 April, 2015