The Lowry saw the transformation into the present day of a truly great female character in Cordelia Lynn’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler. This play asks what we inherit, what we endure and how we carry our history. Holly Race Roughan’s direction explores the complex dynamics of motherhood, power and sabotage.
Haydn Gwynne is absolutely superb as Hedda, portraying a woman who is bored and embittered, cruel yet desperate, yet with some comedic moments, to give the audience some well needed nervous relief. Gwynne is absolutely convincing as the complex, depressed and very damaged, Hedda.
Lynn has moved Ibsen’s characters into the modern day, placing the story in Anna Fleishcle’s atmospheric set comprising a large, rambling house, in desperate need of renovation, set outside an English university town. Praise must go to Ruth Chan for the production’s music, creating an eerie live accompaniment to the events from the half-obscured pianist (Catriona Beveridge and Jennifer Whyte).
Hedda is a middle-aged bitter and bored wife; painfully aware she has wasted her life. Much of that can be laid at the feet of a marriage that she sleepwalked into years ago, and on becoming a mother, gave up a career, which may have seen her become a brilliant academic and/or pianist. She yearns to be relevant and be noticed, and to have a role in a world where she is not forgotten and overlooked.
Having returned from two years in America, the Tesmans are facing a new start. Her husband, the puppy-like George (played by the wonderful Anthony Calf) wishes only to keep Hedda happy but is embroiled in his obscure academic writings, and is soon to take up a Professorship at the local University.
Things start to turn sour, when estranged daughter, Thea (the relentlessly angry Natalie Simpson) unexpectedly returns, and the audience starts to experience glimpses of her mother’s cruelties that drove her away. The cruelties grow in stature, the relationship between mother and daughter further complicated by both of their associations – past and present – with George’s troubled former protégée Elijah (Ifran Shamji). Thea is completely besotted by Elijah, a recovering alcoholic, yet brilliant and ambitious scholar, who we discover has a past “connection” with Hedda, and whose work has “inspired” George.
With the arrival of another old ‘friend’ – the menacing, yet charming Brack (Jonathan Hyde) – the present begins to echo the past and Hedda embarks on a path of complete destruction. Ever-present are the guns: a pair of pistols handed down from Hedda’s father, who casts a dark shadow throughout, from his unnerving portrait on the wall. The guns, although unseen for most of the play, are an ever-present danger in the audience’s mind.
The development of chemistry between the characters becomes more intense as the play plays out, but moments of pure comedy and relief are provided by fabulous performances by Rebecca Oldfield as Bertha, their rather bemused cleaner, and Jacqueline Clarke, as the wonderful character of Auntie Julie.
This is a superb production, but don’t expect to feel relaxed at any point during the performance. The relationships between all characters are completely believable and the audience is on tender-hooks throughout, almost not wanting to watch as Hedda’s boredom and frustration turn to thoughts of cruelty. When it is an aunt’s hat she ridicules, we can almost forgive Hedda. When it is a life she endangers, well – I will let you make your own mind up.★ ★ ★ ★
Hedda Tesman, a Chichester Festival Theatre, Headlong and The Lowry co-production, and a Week 53 Commission, is at The Lowry, Salford Quays from 3-19 October 2019.