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Sex and guns and shock and soul

Heather Neill looks at a production of an Ibsen play transferred to a bleak and brutal Scotland

Hedda Gabler

By Henrik Ibsen

Production by Theatre Babel, Perth Theatre until April 23 and then touring

Coventry, Huddersfield, Southampton, Edinburgh and Glasgow

Graham McLaren, directing Hedda Gabler for Theatre Babel, says there is an added joy in doing the play in Scotland, as he finds the "bleak, Scandinavian landscape" and the "pent-up, Protestant" way of life resonates with the Norwegian Ibsen.

He has cast George Tesman, Hedda's husband, and his aunt as Scots who are "a bit cosy". Hedda clearly regards herself as superior and is not in the least bit "cosy". On a whim, Hedda Gabler has married Tesman, an academic who, after a six-month honeymoon, she finds boring. She remains her father's daughter and enjoys playing with the pistols she has inherited from General Gabler.

Among visitors to her house is Judge Brack ("very English") who, like Iain Glen who plays the part in the current Almeida production, is "much more predatory than the 40 or 50 year-old" who used to be seen in this role.

Prepared to blackmail Hedda into granting him sexual favours, he gains a hold over her when he realises that the dissolute author Loevborg has killed himself with one of the General's pistols, given to him by Hedda.

McLaren thinks it is "way too simple" to label this a feminist play, although it was written in the year that Norway first debated whether to grant women the vote. He is more interested in Hedda as a character: "She is brilliant, yet trapped. She was seen as a witch, but now we see her as funny, charming and witty. She has flaws, but she is entitled to them; if you put a brilliant creature in a cage, it is not surprising if she goes crazy. She is such a romantic; it is a great romantic idea that in destruction lies beauty, in death, greatness."

Hedda hopes Loevborg will shoot himself, magnificently, in the head or the heart; in fact an accidental shot destroys his genitals. Sex is much more important in the play than is at first obvious, but Hedda lives through others: although she wants Loevborg to embody Dionysus and to kill himself heroically, she is afraid of sex and scandal. Thea, the woman who has supported Loevborg, is a schoolmate of Hedda. McLaren sees her as a version of Nora, the heroine of Ibsen's A Doll's House. She has bravely left her husband for a more fulfilling life.

McLaren has developed a new version of the script with the company, starting with the earliest English translation by Edmund Gosse, which he finds so spare as to be reminiscent of Pinter. His production opens up the constraints of naturalism, finding a more visceral core, "vital, to do with the spirit, sex and the soul". Hedda's suicide remains brutal, two lines before the end. "It shows a kind of challenge to the audience: there is no more to be said."

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