Nicole Cooper on playing Hedda Gabler in Glasgow's Kibble Palace: 'I just want to smash it with a baseball bat'

Fresh from an acclaimed run in Macbeth (An Undoing), Nicole Cooper is now poised to tackle Ibsen’s problematic anti-heroine. Interview by Mark Fisher

You have to admire Nicole Cooper’s stamina. She has only just finished her globe-conquering turn in Macbeth (An Undoing), Zinnie Harris’s radical rewrite in which Lady Macbeth was repositioned as the central character of Shakespeare’s play. Having premiered last year, the show hit the road three months ago and toured to London, New York and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum.

That sounds demanding enough, but even before her final performance, Cooper had turned her attention to Hedda Gabler. She will star in the Henrik Ibsen classic – with its great self-destructive female lead – in a production being staged in the Kibble Palace as part of this year’s summer season from Glasgow’s Bard in the Botanics.

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And that’s not all. In the middle of rehearsals, she has to pop back across the Atlantic for the Drama Desk Awards on 10 June. She has been nominated, alongside such luminaries as Jessica Lange and Juliet Stevenson, for Outstanding Lead Performance in a Play. One New York critic said her Lady Macbeth was a “bravura performance, exuding superhuman strength”.

Nicole CooperNicole Cooper
Nicole Cooper

When I ask what she will be wearing, she shivers at the thought. She finds it bewildering to have been noticed in New York and is thrilled simply to attend the event.

“It’s blowing my mind,” says Cooper, who flies out on the Sunday and will be back in rehearsals by the Wednesday. “We’re starting to get all the emails about the evening and the red carpet and it’s all a little bit real. I think I might die if I’m in the same room as Jessica Lange. That’s the only thing I’m concerned about, but it’s going to be fun.”

If she gets back exhausted, the company is prepared. “I’d take a jet-lagged Nicole over anyone else in Scottish theatre,” laughs playwright Kathy McKean who has adapted Hedda Gabler.

Less than a week later Cooper will be in contention for Outstanding Performance at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland, this time for her lead role in Lear’s Fool in last year’s Bard in the Botanics. At the event at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on 16 June, she will be vying with fellow Bard actor Alan Steele for his Falstaff and stars including Blythe Duff.

It sounds glamorous but today, Cooper has more prosaic concerns, such as finding a prom dress for her daughter and fixing the bumper on her car. “It’s constant juggling,” she says. “But I don’t think I could do it any other way.”

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Hedda Gabler is about a woman who finds herself trapped in a marriage to Tesman, a bookish academic whose stretched finances turn her ambition for a better life into impotent fury. Hedda becomes obsessed by Tesman’s more successful rival, Lovborg, whose lost manuscript she destroys in an attempt to hold him back.

Having encouraged Lovborg to kill himself, she is driven to despair when he joins Tresman in rewriting the book together. The lascivious Judge Brack, a family friend, figures out Hedda’s scheme and her plan backfires.

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She is not an easy character to like, which is exactly why Cooper is attracted to her. “She is at times a really unsavoury character,” she says. “I love that about her. The way I work, I need to find out the why: why is this person so bitter and hurt? Where does the vitriol come from? It is hard with Hedda because she seems so privileged and entitled. It’s a tricky piece of writing.”

She adds: “I always want people to understand even a small bit of the why. I’ve got no interest in them liking her, in fact, that’s the challenge: even though this person is awful, can you understand the pain they’re in?”

McKean, who previously translated Medea with Cooper in mind, says she has tried to honour Ibsen’s intentions. “What I have done is true to the spirit of the original, which is so tightly written and structured,” she says. “It’s important to keep the context of the setting, although my dialogue is more contemporary.”

Cooper says she loves what McKean has done: “It is very recognisably Hedda but, in true Kathy style, there are elements where we delve into the darkness. Hedda has these chunks where she bares her soul for a moment, then realises and backtracks. Those little speeches are about the darkness inside her.”

Returning to previous translations, McKean was struck by one particular phrase. What is commonly translated as, “Now you have your hold on me,” when Hedda realises Judge Brack knows about her manipulative behaviour, was written by Ibsen in a later draft as, “You have throat and hand over me from now on”. That phrase seemed much more vivid.

“It’s so expressive,” says McKean. “We hadn’t associated that visceral quality with the play or the character before. So what is key are the restraints. What the setting gives us [in the Kibble Palace glass house] are all of these windows to an outside world that she can only ever vicariously travel to. That emphasises the metaphorical prison she is in.”

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“I’m in this beautiful glasshouse and I just want to smash it with a baseball bat,” laughs Cooper. “Hedda is petrified of her future. As the play develops, the murky vision of her future solidifies. And the clearer that becomes, the less acceptable it is to her. That cannot happen to her – especially with that menace from Brack. She can’t cope with the horrific inevitability of her future.”

Hedda Gabler, Bard In The Botanics, Glasgow, 20 June until 6 July.

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