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Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic: a great production of a flawed adaptation

Hedda Gabler is one of my favourite plays of all times. I have read the original Ibsen play and seen it performed many times in different countries. I simply can't get enough of Hedda for reasons I will explain in a later post. When I last saw it in a small theatre in Tokyo with the stunning Japanese actress Rei Asami in the lead role, I was so overcome with emotion, I could not move for a few minutes after the curtain came down. 

Ann Mackmin's production of Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic had an stellar cast with an appropriately petit-looking Sheridan Smith doing an excellent job of playing the complex undertones in Hedda. The closing scene was also the most original I have seen so far. But – call me a purist – as an admirer of Henrik Ibsen's original text, I felt let down and irritated by some of the liberties Brian Friel had taken with the script. 

The introduction of Judge Brack's obsession with Americanisms just about works in adding a comic effect to the dialogue. But George Tesman, Hedda's well-intentioned yet utterly tedious academic husband, is caricatured to an uncomfortable extreme: his attachment to a pair of slippers embroidered by his aunt is too pathetic to be believable and the boisterous dancing around the house, only minutes before the tragic climax, as Tesman receives news of his wife's pregnancy, momentarily turns the tense crescendo scene into slapstick comedy.

The scene reminded me of the jollities in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. While Dancing at Lughnasa is set in County Donegal in Ireland and the dancing in it is in context, seeing a grown-up Doctor Tesman skip round the stage wearing a tiara made of flowers, made me cringe in my seat with embarrassment.

Perhaps the most disturbing addition in this Friel version was Hedda's confession to Judge Brack that she cannot control her impetus to be cruel, that she feels 'possessed'at times, hinting at some kind of personality disorder that could have been sorted by psychiatric treatment. Hedda is not insane, only insanely unhappy, and that is a fundamental point that should not have been tinkered with.

We despise Hedda's cruelty and selfishness but we cannot help but empathise with her loneliness and her lack of purpose. She married Tesman by choice but feels trapped and suffocated. She probably feels disempowered at a time when the only choice a woman could have in life was to marry a respectable man and bear his children. The evil in Hedda is the evil that lives in all of us. Blaming her mood swings on a mental imbalance would be oversimplifying the complexities of human nature in a character that symbolises the dilemma of many women in the past and present.

In the original Hedda Gabler, Ibsen hints but never confirms whether Hedda is actually pregnant. The production at the Old Vic was the first time I have ever seen Hedda spell out not only that she is pregnant but in her fourth months of gestation. Unless Friel assumed the audience would be so obtuse they could not have guessed otherwise, this felt like too much information. 

Not everything has to be so explicit and in your face. Subtle meaning and subtext only make a play more enjoyable to watch. I could be mistaken but I don't think Hedda is ever heard swearing in the original play. Her cruelty and contempt for others are implicit in her actions; she does not need to speak out. But when Hedda calls Tesman's aunt 'interfering bitch', she sounds rather anachronistically like a young woman from the 21st century, when she is not even dressed like one. 

Yet, for all its textual flaws, the production was still well worth seeing.

The billowing white curtains stage right created great atmosphere and Lez Brotherston's centre stage set with the glass-walled backroom worked as a wonderfully effective solution for the staging of the final scene. Hedda enclosed within the glass walls as she finds out her plans to manipulate and control other people's fates have backfired is a  most powerful metaphor to her increasing isolation – she becomes a prisoner of her own destiny. 

Explicitness suddenly works at the end. Blood splattered on the glass, the audience witnessing, through the glass, the anguished faces of Tesman and Brack as they run into the room where Hedda has shot herself, their cries of despair muffled by the closed walls, Judge Brack's hands smearing Hedda's blood on the glass; it is tragedy complete.

Outside, Mrs Elvsted, indignant and almost indifferent to the drama in the house, quietly gathering papers from the floor is superb in the screaming message it conveys. The grand finale saves the day; all flaws are forgiven. 

I am now ready for another Hedda Gabler. Bring it on.
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