Cordelia Lynn, after Ibsen
Headlong, The Lowry & Chichester Festival Theatre
The Lowry, Quays Theatre
3 Oct- 19 Oct 2019: 2hr 30min
Cordelia Lynn’s updating of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler to the present day is a well-written, superbly acted evening in the theatre. It has its flaws, but let’s not dwell on them – yet.
Hedda Tesman is the home-bound wife of academic George Tesman (in Ibsen her surname is Tesman too, but he used her maiden name to emphasise that she is her father’s daughter more than her husband’s wife).
George is still close to his aunt Julie, who helped raise him; they have a family friend, a judge, called Brack.
So far, so close to the original, except that our Hedda (Haydn Gwynne) and our George (Anthony Calf) are middle-aged, not newly married. Instead of the housemaid Bertha we have Bertha the agency cleaner (Rebecca Oldfield), armed with her cordless Hoover, who is still the voice of down-to-earth, non-neurotic common sense.
But the other main female role has changed. Instead of Thea being a younger, married acquaintance of Hedda and George, she (Natalie Simpson) is their daughter; and Eilert, the recovering alcoholic ex-colleague of George whose re-emergence in the scholarly world poses a threat to George’s (and hence Hedda’s) ambitions, has become Elijah (Irfan Shamji), George’s former PhD student. He is in possession of an unpublished manuscript masterpiece in whose creation he and Thea shared (as in Hedda Gabler).
After that the story proceeds in much the same way, with Hedda, frustrated and mentally wobbling, destroying not just Elijah’s sobriety but also his manuscript and her own family’s slim hopes of reconciliation, with tragic results.
It’s the additional complication of a fraught mother-daughter relationship that gives Lynn’s adaptation extra bite; that plus the depth in Hedda’s character, as a mature woman who once had academic hopes herself but gave them up to be her daughter’s reluctant mother and now has no fulfilling role. There’s a line about how she was one of that generation who wanted to "have it all", but now (as almost the last line in the play implies) had everything but found nothing.
Haydn Gwynne is wonderful in this: caustic, smart, desperate for something more than the bumbling life of her family’s little railway train. The other performers are virtually faultless, too, and Holly Race Roughan’s direction has unobtrusive impact and is aware of the comic absurdities of the situation, as well as its many other aspects. A dysfunctional family isn’t much fun to watch, but the Hedda-Thea relationship is one of two generations, where the daughter has a determination to be her own woman in the way that her mother gave up long ago.
There are flaws, and the major one comes from the fact that if this were the present day, the idea of a brilliant academic book existing only in hand-written paper form is almost incredible. Granted we hear references to "notes" from which Thea and her father intend to reconstruct the masterpiece (and we see them at work on his laptop doing so in the final scene), but in the real world such a tome would have some kind of electronic existence too.
Should Hedda have smashed up Elijah and Thea’s respective laptops instead of burning a sheaf of paper? What about a back-up in the cloud?
But then you’d lose the drama of real paper and real burning. And would a present-day general’s daughter have her father’s pistols still in working order and kept in a leather box like a cutlery canteen (licensed or not)? But then it would lose touch with Ibsen altogether. Still, suspension of disbelief and all that; there are limits to "realism".
The thrust stage presentation (adapted from the Chichester theatre’s shape?) works OK and certainly brings the action up-close for some, but the production and effective set design (Anna Fleischle) look as if things would have been as effective in a conventional fourth-wall configuration as well.