In her introduction to the text for her play Hedda Tesman, Cordelia Lynn says that “The idea was to create a piece of new writing held within Ibsen’s original play….As a way of addressing developments in socio-political conditions for women since 1891, the ages and relationships of some of the characters have been changed.” The original play is Hedda Gabler, and she has certainly succeeded with the former, but I’m not convinced about the latter.
Let’s get the formalities out of the way. It’s beautifully acted as well as being nicely directed by Holly Race Roughan, and the design by Anna Fleischle (a big old house on The Lowry’s Quays stage which has been lowered and turned into a rather intimidating thrust) works well. It reminded me of the set for another reworking of Ibsen – Ghosts at Manchester’s HOME last year.
The cast, led by Haydn Gwynne as Hedda, is uniformly excellent, and it would be invidious to single anyone out, but I’m going to anyway. Irfan Shamji as Elijah gave the most convincing performance of an unrecovered alcoholic the morning-after that I have ever seen. And Gwynne led me to thinking that most unprofessional of thoughts, how does she remember all those lines? Perhaps it was being so close or perhaps I’m just old.
If you don’t know Hedda Gabler, it doesn’t matter. This play works entirely on its own. But if you do, the resonances are startling and revealing. However you come at it, the central problem with this version, for me at least, is that Hedda is a monster. It’s difficult to write about this without spoilers, but it’s clear from fairly early on that she doesn’t love her husband of some 20 years, and probably never has done. Her daughter talks about how her mother abused her, and then the actions Hedda takes in the play – for which she always has a good excuse – are precisely the behaviour of a sociopath. She clearly likes hurting people, and sets them up to see what they will do, like putting butterflies in a killing jar.
Lynn has done a good job of keeping Ibsen’s plot, but changing the roles of some characters so the original Thea, Hedda’s friend, has become Thea her daughter; and Ejlert Lovborg, Geroge Tesman’s academic rival, has become Elijah, his pupil. But otherwise all the relationships and major actions remain the same, albeit now and not in 1891. But, whereas the idea that the denouement – no spoilers here – in the original was a consequence of the newly-married, 20-something Hedda’s social oppression as a woman, in this version the two decades-married Hedda is an entirely different persona. The main question I asked was, how have the others, particularly her husband, put up with her for so long?
For example, much play is made in the original of the fact that Hedda refuses to use the familiar form ‘du’ to address her new husband’s Aunt Julie, and when she does accidentally use it, it is a matter of celebration. But if she’d been treating Aunt Julie like that for 20 years – and Aunt Julie, by the way, is a little ray of sunshine which is probably why Hedda can’t stand her, there’s nothing for her to get her claws into – then I doubt that Aunt Julie would treat her the way she does in this play, or be delighted when Hedda finally calls her “Auntie”, Lynn’s way of translating the familiar, which works very well.
Nevertheless this is an extremely good production, and a great chance to see some excellent acting close up. But, and I return to a well worn theme here, ultimately I have to ask, why is this being done at all? We are living through the most disruptive, significant, troubling period in our history since the Second World War. Where are the plays?
Images by Johan Persson
Hedda Tesman is at The Lowry until October 19, 2019. For more information, click here.