Hedda Gabler is a true fin de siècle tale; not just because of its setting but everything that it embodies. Hedda (Catherine Walker) seems full of pessimism and contempt; an unrest within her has led to a crisis point and only change can bring her beyond it. Upon returning from her six month honeymoon with husband Jorge (Peter Gaynor), Hedda quickly realises that a life of banality awaits her and she sets about entertaining herself much to the peril of those around her. Whilst Hedda is a bully in many ways, she is ultimately a coward, and her fear of what other people will say or think about her prevents her from fulfilling her desires. Even the timid Thea (Kate Stanley Brennan), who is in town to keep on eye on her brilliant but broken love interest Lovborg (Keith McErlean), is living a life more exciting than Hedda because she doesn’t have the same fear that possesses Hedda. Faced with a mixture of her past, present, and future, Hedda’s callousness towards others becomes inverted. The future, although momentarily lost, may now be in the hands of those who will nurture it.
O’ Rowe’s presence is felt in subtle (and not so subtle) ways throughout this version. Particularly in his use of naturalistic, overlapping dialogue; although this is used less in Hedda Gabler than in his own original work. The odd expletive also strays from the original.
Whilst it would be easy to label Hedda as a psycho-bitch, the reality is that it is her neuroses rather than psychosis than pushes, motivates, and destroys her. These neuroses, most likely, are a product of her society; one in which she cannot live the life she wishes to due to the societal restrictions and pressures of the day. That’s not to let Hedda off the hook too easily though; she makes her own choices (when she can) and whilst her cruelty and disdain are often humorous they prove to be equally fatal.
The understated set design highlights the differences between the past and present, the complete and the incomplete, the expressed and the repressed, while also remaining faithful to the story’s 19th century heritage. Use of audio-visuals during act transitions gives a sense of discomfort; the almost audible words of the chattering classes doing that which Hedda fears the most: judging.
In such a role it can be hard to live up to expectations but Catherine Walker ably fills these shoes. In fairness, the complete cast act remarkably well, brought together under Annabelle Comyn’s direction. The entire production goes down a treat and O’ Rowe’s version doesn’t stray too far off the original track. Speaking of Hedda, O’ Rowe says it best: you can’t solve her; all you can do is represent her.
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen (in a new version by Mark O’ Rowe).
10 April – 16 May 2015 at The Abbey Theatre, Dublin.
Directed by Annabelle Comyn.