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Catherine Walker stars as Hedda Gabler in a lean new version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 classic by Our Few and Evil Days playwright Mark O’Rowe.
Hedda has just returned from honeymooning with her dull academic husband, Tesman (Peter Gaynor). As they settle into a new house, she idly insults Tesman’s devoted Aunt Julle (Jane Brennan), threatens to fire his long-suffering maid Berte (Deirdre Molloy), and takes a pot-shot at former lover Judge Brack (Declan Conlon). Brack, however, takes bullets whistling past his ears in stride, and knows he is the only person to whom Hedda can confide her utter boredom with bourgeois life, and her love of manipulating people. Hedda’s former schoolmate Thea Elvsted (Kate Stanley Brennan) arrives, seeking help in tracking down another of Hedda’s former lovers, the once dissolute but now reformed Ejlert Lovborg (Keith McErlean). When Brack reveals that Lovborg is Tesman’s only rival for a professorship the scene is set for Hedda’s greatest chicanery.
O’Rowe’s new version of Ibsen’s script owes a debt to David Mamet in its many interruptions and overlapping dialogue, and under Annabelle Comyn’s direction a very fast pace is maintained. O’Rowe and Comyn bring out Hedda’s sheer joy in the cruel manipulation of other people, but also underscore the impulsiveness of her manoeuvres, which ultimately proves her undoing. Comyn’s regular set designer Paul O’Mahony eschews his usual impressive naturalistic detail by placing a room in the centre of the stage, free-standing doors establishing its boundaries, with an imaginary hallway and a garden on either side. It’s a clever visual response to this production’s focus on who Hedda Gabler really is; even if that question is bound to receive as equally futile an answer as when Ibsen’s folk hero Peer Gynt famously peeled an onion while examining his identity.
Walker is an impressive Hedda. Jaded, spiteful, and trapped by her gender and temperament – a general’s daughter lamenting (in O’Rowe’s most obvious alteration) that everything she touches becomes “grotesque, vulgar, and f******* farcical”. Walker’s astringent boredom brings out the black comedy of the text in a manner that complements Conlon’s turn as an exhausted dandy. Indeed Brack is rendered somewhat more muted than usual in this version, and his final line is thereby given an oddly enigmatic quality. Gaynor’s Tesman is a wonderful creation, comically oblivious at times, while maintaining an underlying dignity. That dignity is shared by the other two points of the academic triangle: Brennan sharply etches Thea as an unexpected threat to Hedda by virtue of her intellect, and McErlean gives Lovborg a deep well of ambition, which is matched by his self-loathing.
Hedda Gabler, like Hamlet, will always offer something new to audiences each time it is attempted, and this fast-paced, spare production is an enthralling exploration of a protean play.
Hedda Gabler continues its run at the Abbey until May 16th.