ONCE, after a particularly intense encounter with Ibsen’s great 1888 drama The Lady From The Sea, I had a strange and disturbing dream that revolved around the final scene of Hedda Gabler – the woman, the gunshot, the sudden shift to a different world, where Ibsen said to me: “I used to struggle with the forms of things. But now, I don’t bother.”
Hedda Gabler - Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
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The dream left me very little wiser; but it disabused me forever of the received idea that Ibsen is the “father of realism”, a kind of campaigning documentarist of gloomy 19th century drawing-rooms.
In Hedda Gabler, now revived at the Lyceum, those conventions certainly allow an intelligent, dynamic young woman to spend her life literally bored to distraction, in a gilded cage provided first by her father, General Gabler, and then by her unloved husband, the young aspiring professor George Tesman.
It’s to the credit of Lyceum associate director Amanda Gaughan, though, that she fully realises that the surging power of Ibsen’s drama comes from a much deeper place, the place where Hedda is a classic flawed protagonist, and her own worst enemy. Instead of rebelling against convention, she chooses to obey the rules she despises; and then, in her self-hating rage, becomes an enemy of life itself – of the new creative life that has sprung up between her former lover Lovborg and the brave and loving Thea Elvstedt, and of her own body, burgeoning with a new life she detests, after her six-month honeymoon with Tesman.
There is, in other words, a profoundly female grandeur and pathos in Hedda’s struggle with her own despair. Those are the qualities, though, that are precisely absent in Gaughan’s thoughtful but confused production, and Nicola Daley’s brusque and brittle central performance; it’s as if Gaughan and her designer Jean Chan set the scene for the right kind of dreamlike drama, but then failed to find the drama itself.
They’re not helped by Richard Eyre’s light-touch version of the text, which ends up in a kind of unpleasant comic collusion with Hedda’s cruel snobbery. And despite some strong work from the supporting cast, this is a Hedda Gabler that finally compels us either to sneer along with Ibsen’s conflicted heroine, or to hate her so heartily that we long to shoot her ourselves. Neither of which is a tragic emotion; or one that takes us to the heart of the huge, visceral struggle between creation and destruction that shapes this bold and frightening play.
Seen on 24.03.15
• Until 11 April