Minerva Theatre, Chichester – until 28 September 2019
Last night, while Parliament spiralled into disorderly, resentful confusion and Mr Bercow dramatically put an end to himself after a lot of furious shouting because other people didn’t accept his “re-alli-tee!” I was having a parallel experience at Cordelia Lynn’s new updating of Ibsen’s most troubling heroine. Who, significantly, the original author called by her maiden name Hedda Gabler: perhaps to indicate that the most toxic influence in her life is her father the General, whose huge portrait dominates her married home and whose pistols she fiddles with in preparation for her final suicide.
This updating author calls her by her married name: poor affable dull academic George Tesman, who is here given almost too much likeability by Anthony Calf. She, on the other hand remains Ibsen’s sarcastic, prickly figure, an intelligent woman trapped in an 1890s patriarchal society. The other men in her life, according to Ibsen, were the volatile Lovborg, another academic writing a “brilliant” paper despite being drunk, brilliant and doomed, and the patriarchally controlling Judge Brack. As everyone knows, it ends with a gunshot.
Cordelia Lynn, for this version has imagined that it’s 30 years later (but, a bit problematically, actually 115 years later, and therefore right now). Her Hedda didn’t shoot herself in the head when pregnant but lived on, had the baby, called her Thea, didn’t like motherhood and spent decades feeling under-used, degraded by wifehood, intellectually frustrated and bored stiff of George’s enthusiastic research into “Domestic crafts in medieval Brabant”.
They’re back from two years at Harvard, starting to unpack (the box with the pistols in first, obviously), Thea is deep in therapy, moved out to live with Aunt Julie, then walked out of a brief marriage, and hasn’t spoken to her parents for five years. But she bursts in, mardy and cross, full of shrill demands (in the interval I looked at Parliament channel online and the echoes were remarkable).
She says they must invite Elijah (a version of Ibsen’s Lovborg) with whom she has been collaborating on a handwritten sociological treatise about “a short history of history and socio-cultural forces on the future”. She also says that Elijah is off the booze, but we all know how long that’s likely to last. What with the moody twangling of a piano dimly seen overhead, a sinister spotlight on old Gabler’s portrait, and the temperament of Hedda herself hanging over the household like a rancid thundercloud.
Lynn keeps close to the shape of the original play, but mercifully expands the tiny role of the maid Bertha to be a cheerful, normal agency cleaner who speaks merrily to the un-mothered Thea about how much she enjoys being a Mum, with all the worry and laughs. That’s touching. So, in a way, are the scenes between Hedda and the daughter she resents; and there are some good, weird sparks between Hedda and Irfan Shamji’s ’s louche Elijah while she prepares a celeriac and expresses her frustration to him.
She, of course, is the main reason to go and see this play: for Hedda 2019 is Haydn Gwynne. And from the moment she descends the stairs – to be no help at all with the unpacking – the woman is mesmerizing: a tall pale streak of vivid resentment, every turn of her head dangerous, every smile faintly deranged even when her wit is sharpest. She shines, demanding our partisanship even in her most bonkers statements about self-destruction being “beautiful, brave, brilliant” or her self-absorbed refusal to join her husband at his aunt’s deathbed. “You know I can’t have anything to do with hospitals or death” she says haughtily, milking away at her thirty-year-old experience of her father’s death.
She’s immensely watchable, and utterly awful, and it takes all Gwynne’s finesse, and the directorial devices of Holly Race Roughan, to make us see deep enough into her pain to sympathize. Well, a bit. . Even though she is living in 2019 , with a pussycat of a husband, no parental responsibilities and a cleaner to look after the house , so any frustration she has is self-inflicted.
But more and more, there’s a sense that what you are seeing is some damn fine acting in a rather ho-hum play. Jonathan Hyde’s Brack is suitably saturnine and finally satanic; Natalie Simpson as the daughterThea is fascinating, and there is a bat-squeak suggestion – – due to their similar colouring and the intensity of their collaboration – that perhaps Elijah, not poor old George, was actually her father. But that may not be intended. What jars most is the sense that the stark despairs of Ibsen’s heroines are not the despairs of our own times, and his social injustices are not ours. Nor is it easy to accept the idea that the most terrible thing n the world is the loss of Lovborg-Elijah’s handwritten sociological treatise about “a short history of history and socio-cultural forces on the future” . It sounds hell.
But Haydn Gwynne in full snarling Hedda mode is something to see. It suited the evening. As I staggered out to watch the news online, I could only reflect that only she could make the resigning John Bercow look mild and resigned.
www.cft.org.uk to 28 September