Pros: A historic manor is the perfect setting for this exceptional production of a flawed heroine’s marital despair.
Cons: Something of Hedda’s psychological subtlety is lost through such a radical paring back of the script.
Hedda is a new version of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, famous for its portrayal of a frustrated woman’s drastic and fatal attempts to escape a stifling, loveless marriage. This first production by Palimpsest, directed by Patrick Sandford, is touring a number of heritage houses in and around London. So you get the double whammy of being able to explore a historic site and see a great play. On this occasion, it’s Sutton House, an atmospheric Tudor manor house in Homerton.
A pre-performance 19th century soirée has been put on to welcome Mrs. Hedda Tesman (née Gabler) to her new marital home. The maid, Dora, greeted me as I entered, explaining that her ladyship would be down shortly. I unwittingly asked if there would be an interval in the evening’s proceedings. “An interval?” Dora replied, looking bewildered, “I don’t know what that is.” No coming out of character permitted, I guessed! I managed better with the maid, Bertha, who kindly offered me a glass of sherry and hung up my coat. I then enjoyed a good snoop around some of the interesting installations that give you hints of the play’s unnerving trajectory.
Hosting the play in an old oak-paneled living room, with barely enough space for the cast, along with the warm lighting from the desk lamps, created a mixed feeling of privacy and intrusiveness. I already felt overly familiar with the characters I met from having perused the supplementary online material. A lavish but disturbing scrapbook and Hedda’s diary entries impressively transpose the world of the Tesmans from Oslo, Norway to Hampstead London. And a melancholic video of her unrequited encounter with the turbulent Edmund reveals Hedda’s contradictory and self-destructive nature.
Katherine Tozer’s adaptation opens with an innovation. Hedda’s nemesis (only alluded to in the original), Mademoiselle Diana, played by Nina Richardson is onstage. She sits languidly among the audience throughout and sings with great poise and seduction, provoking a wrought-up Hedda toward her own undoing. Richardson’s threateningly lucid notes really stay with you long after the performance.
The acting, as you might expect from a group of Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre actors, is outstanding all round. No one misses a beat. A deft performance is given by Owen Oakeshott as the conniving Judge Brack, whose blackmail of Hedda pushes her closer to the edge. Lisa Ellis shines as the warm and loveable Aunt Julie and Rebecca Johnson is superb as the vulnerable and impassioned Thea, both of whom are mercilessly ridiculed by Hedda, played by Katherine Tozer. Distant and disaffected, every word Hedda speaks is punctuated and joyless. She is barely able to respond to her bookish and unsurprising husband, George, played by Geoffrey Newland. Only with the reckless and dashing Edmund, played by Chris Polick, does her talk flow, albeit towards nihilistic mischief. Well-wrought staging has the cast and the furniture claustrophobically close to the audience. And I very much admired the decision to keep Hedda onstage for the final, explosive scene.
Hedda Gabler remains one of modern theatre’s great anti-heroines. She is deliciously controversial and elusive, mainly because she keeps her secrets to herself. By slashing the usual three-hour script to a mere one hour and fifteen minutes, this production seems to reduce Hedda’s rationale for the havoc she causes to that of a jealous and frustrated neurotic. Though the online material attempts to help unravel the strands of Hedda’s psychology, something of her enigmatic and terrifying power was missing. Even so, this is an excellent play that is technically accomplished in every way. I very much look forward to seeing Palimpsest’s future offerings.
Author: Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by: Katherine Tozer
Director: Patrick Sandford
Booking Until: 12th April 2014
Booking Link: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/palimpsest-4523138879