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Ibsen's Hedda Gabler
Published on Sunday, 07 August 2011

3 stars

Hill Street Theatre (venue website)
5-9, 11-16, 18-23, 25-29 Aug, 2:15pm-3:45pm
Reviewed by Liv Watson

 Recommended for age 14+ only.

The character of Hedda Gabler has been variously described as ‘neurotic’, ‘heroic’ and ‘horrifying’, and Nigel O’Hearn’s adaptation of the Ibsen classic effectively conveys the fevered despair of this notorious protagonist. Robin Grace Thompson as Hedda is sensuous and malevolent, her performance so striking that the other five members of the cast slip into what seem like supporting roles – albeit roles that are played with confidence and style. The sinister relationship between Judge Brack and Hedda is particularly effective, Thompson’s simmering sexuality a convincing catalyst for the exploitation that characterises the relationship by the final scenes of the play.

O’Hearn’s adaptation relies on a polished script that doesn’t slip for a second, and this is where the six members of the company show their strength. Although the show is long by Fringe standards – it runs for an hour and a half – the performance as a whole is fast-paced, and the cast deliver their lines with impeccable timing.

But the excellent delivery of a carefully-adapted script is the highlight of this production, since other aspects are at times confusing. In contrast to the usual conventionality of an Ibsen production, the stage setting is characterised by simplicity – with only a few chairs and a table, and the performers themselves using hand-held torches to create spotlights and silhouettes. The famously claustrophobic feel of Ibsen’s drama is conveyed through the presence of all six members of the cast on stage throughout the duration of the play. However, effects such as the rain that falls in a thin stream from a bucket hanging above the stage miss the mark: they are distracting rather than innovative or striking.

The adaptation is nonetheless interesting: the prologue – unbroken poetry which reaches a manic crescendo before falling into the main body of the play – is a refreshing addition. However, some may feel that the constrained conventionality of the staging in the original script is what makes the play so utterly shocking: Hedda’s vindictive desire for power is all the more jarring in an atmosphere that recalls the day-to-day comforts of the aspiring middle classes. Moreover, the props which meant so much in the original stage directions are simply absent.  This significant layer of metaphor is not recovered elsewhere.

Overall, the company produces a solid rendition that will please Ibsen fans. The acting, swept along by Thompson’s frenetic Hedda, is compelling and does justice to the complexity and highly-strung sexuality of the characters. But though the blurb bills the adaptation as “broken of its Victorian rigidity”, the simplicity of the set alone is not enough to do the claim justice.  If you are hoping for a truly ground-breaking adaptation of the play, you may leave disappointed.

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