Minerva Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre ****
Runs 2hrs 30 mins with one interval
Review of perf seen Sept 5, 2019:
Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler – along with Nora Helmer – are two of the most haunting characters in the classical theatre repertoire. Now Ibsen’s Hedda has had a a contemporary make-over.
In Cordelia Lynn’s Hedda Tesman, the restless, dissatisfied Hedda has actually become a mother (in the original, she is in her 20s and aghast at the thought of being pregnant) – a middle aged woman who feels her life, in the role of a wife to an academic, is ebbing away from her and whose personality precluded her from even enjoying motherhood.
In Lynn’s updated version, Thea – in the original a school-mate who marries an older man but comes to form a close working relationship with Eilert Lovborg, a young student who previously fell under Hedda’s spell – has now become Hedda’s difficult, partly traumatised daughter.
Hedda’s husband, well meaning, pedantic, loyal and to Hedda, intensely boring George, is an earnest historian returning home to a rural backwater after a teaching stint at an East Coast American College.
For Hedda, the silence of the countryside is a living death, as is George’s sweet, gratingly benevolent (to her), Aunt Julie.
So the scene is a set for Ibsen’s familiarly jarring criss-cross of dynamics – Hedda’s infatuation with guns and the legacy of her Army general father; George’s ineffectual niceness; and crucially Thea’s realignment with Hedda’s anamorata, Lovborg, now translated into the wholly convincing and troubling Ph.D ex-student of George’s, Elijah.
Thea has performed the function of rescuer to the wild, undisciplined, alcoholic Elijah, turning him into a sober academic able to produce a possibly brilliant opus on the Future.
Lynn has not been entirely able to square the circle on all the psychological impediments that have prevented our contemporary Hedda from taking action and creating the life for herself that she wants.
Unlike Ibsen’s Hedda whom he so presciently and perceptively portrayed as trapped within her 19th century Norwegian middle-class provincial conventions (like his Nora), today Hedda could surely find alternative outlets.
But the fascinating and resonant ploy of Lynn and director Holly Race Roughan’s co-production with Headlong and Manchester’s Lowry Theatre, is to view contemporary Hedda through not only a social but also class prism.
Lynn’s Bertha – in the original, the housemaid – here becomes an agency cleaner with her very own story of working class motherhood and child-rearing. Hedda Tesman becomes very much a play for today about women who do not wish, have never wished to have children, and of the frustration lurking within regarding stay-at-home wives.
Lynn’s Hedda Tesman is much more about the pressures within bearing down upon her own psyche than Ibsen’s Hedda where the pressures are portrayed as predominantly external ones.
In Chichester’s production, with Haydn Gwynne as Hedda, that pressure is shown as wholly destructive and despite the update, still not wholly explained.
Gwynne, taut as a bow-string, makes her a grimly mesmerising embittered, acerbic figure, eaten up by envy and jealousy, even of her own daughter – she would not look out of place in one of those 1940s Bette Davis/Joan Crawford films! – unlikeable surely, but never caricatured.
Anthony Calf’s George is a wonderful portrait of absent-minded unawareness and Natalie Simpson’s Thea, a painful study in childhood rejection.
The revelation for this spectator was the Elijah of Irfan Shamji, a broken, almost reformed but hopelessly flawed figure, vulnerable to influence. You can feel the shared compatibilities of the older woman, Hedda, and younger man, Elijah, oozing out of them – a sharing of ideas Hedda and George have clearly never had.
For, in the end, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, and Lynn’s Hedda Tesman both share exploration of the legacies of upbringing (General Tesman’s portrait with his troublingly hooded eyes dominates the interior of Anna Fleischle’s wonderful tumbling old house set) – and the power people wish to exert over others.
Hedda longs for power over Elijah to give her life some meaning; Thea shies away from the intrusion she feels her mother continues to try to exert over her. And Jonathan Hyde’s controlled, dangerous Judge Brack, a man incapable of commitment except at a distance, sets trap after trap in an attempt to insert himself into the Tesman ménage as a third party with power over Hedda.
Hedda’s only way out ultimately is to commit the one act of bravery she considers will free her from self-hatred, boredom and Brack.
Roughan’s production carries plenty of atmosphere, with a mournful live piano spotlit from above, a reflection perhaps of the pianist and piano teacher Hedda might have become with Gwynne at one point showing her own fine piano-playing skills.
All in all, Roughan and Lynn give us a thoroughly plausible, engrossing update that renews Ibsen in the light of today without in any way losing sight of the original. In this age of radical reinterpretations, that’s quite some achievement.
All the same, I wonder what today’s feminists would make of a new play that showed a woman who didn’t want to have children in such a poor light? Might we be appalled, outraged? After Fleabag, possibly not.
Ibsen, though, remains a subversive presence. Wouldn’t he be amazed!
By Cordelia Lynn
After Henrik Ibsen
Bertha: Rebecca Oldfield
George Tesman: Anthony Calf
Julie Tesman: Jacqueline Clarke
Hedda Tesman: Haydn Gwynne
Thea Tesman: Natalie Simpson
Brack: Jonathan Hyde
Elijah: Irfan Shamji
Pianists: Catriona Beveridge and Jennifer Whyte
Director: Holly Race Roughan
Designer: Anna Fleischle
Lighting Designers: Zoe Spurr
Music: Ruth Chann
Sound Designer: George Dennis
Casting Director: Charlotte Sutton CDG
Fight Directors: Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown
Voice and Dialect Coach: Edda Sharpe
Associate Designer: Liam Bunster
Costume Supervisor: Natasha Prynne
Assistant Director: Sophie Moniram
A co-production with Headlong and The Lowry.
World premiere of Hedda Tesman at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, Aug 30, 2019. Runs to Sept 28, 2019.
At The Lowry, Manchester, Oct 3-19
Review published on this site, Sept 6, 2019