Hellbent on compromise
Aleks Sierz previews a new production of an Ibsen play which is faithful to the original, but offers a contemporary slant
On the centenary of Henrik Ibsen's death, his Hedda Gabler is being revived in a co-production by West Yorkshire Playhouse and Liverpool Playhouse. First staged in 1890, the play tells the story of the newly wed and headstrong Hedda, who is unhappy with her husband Tesman. A self-destructive woman, she first lends her pistol to her husband's unstable and suicidal rival, and then, when blackmailed about this by Judge Brack - who wants to have an affair with her -she shoots herself.
This new adaptation by Mike Poulton is directed by Matthew Lloyd. He says that Poulton's translation "is really fresh, light on its feet and moves rapidly along. He's got a terrific facility for preserving a period idiom while stripping away a lot of the padding which the play no longer needs.
He's absolutely faithful to the original, but at the same time pitches the play to a modern theatregoing sensibility."
This production's design, with its circular room, emphasises the play's claustrophobic intensity. Hedda herself "is profoundly ill at ease with her body and her destiny as a woman. She's had a very twisted upbringing, and has had aristocratic values instilled in her. She's been brought up in a very male environment and is marked by her father's military background.
Her mother is never mentioned, so she might have died in childbirth. Hedda has a very virile outlook but her husband has been brought up by two women, his aunts. So there is a clash between her masculine sensibility and his feminine one."
Ibsen, Lloyd states, "associates Hedda with a pair of pistols, which are a phallic symbol, and Hedda is fearless about breaking social conventions, shocking other people, and that makes her attractive. Her great problem, however, is that she is both heroic and at the same time afraid of what other people will think of her. She's an archetypal rebel, but she doesn't want to harm her public reputation. So she's a bit of a dreamer."
Lloyd hopes that young people will appreciate the fact that he has cast young actors in the main parts. "Hedda Gabler has a very extreme sense of who she is and an equally extreme sense of what other people think of her - and she can't really square the two. It's a play about young people still in touch with their raw idealism and just confronting the difficulties of the adult world, and all its compromises."