By Elly Savva
As somebody who was infatuated with Henrik Ibsen’s Dollshouse, I jumped on the opportunity to watch the Sherman Theatre’s production of its darker sister play Hedda Gabler. Under the vision of Chelsea Walker, the production takes a new stylistic direction, leaving the audience dazzled and spellbound. It is not the type of performance that you can enjoy from the comfort of your seat – it is an experience that enthrals and unsettles you, invading your space and your conscience.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Hedda Gabler is a story set within the confines of a traditional domestic setting. Upon returning from her six-month honeymoon, the titular character of Hedda is a woman dissatisfied with the role she plays and the powerlessness she feels within her world. For a play written over a century ago, it is an incredible feat that Ibsen’s tale still resonates so much with a present-day audience.
Brian Friel’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic doesn’t make drastic changes to the story. There is no contemporary glossing over or attempt to transfer the play to a modern setting, which gives it quite a timeless feel. Instead, what Friel’s adaptation does is retranslate the language to make it more accessible to a present-day audience. The dialogue is opened up, solidified and given more life. Considering the original text was published in 1890, this adaptation refreshes the original heart of the play. One notable thing about Friel’s reworking of the story is that he adds a layer of comic relief. This gave a very hysterical feel to the performance, as the audience were encouraged to laugh whilst also being aware of a sense disaster looming on the horizon. Although at points this felt bizarre, if Friel’s intention was to make the crowd uncomfortable, then he certainly succeeded.
The role of Hedda is a right of passage for many actresses, sometimes referred to as the “female Hamlet”, it is considered one of the great roles in theatre. Stars who have performed the role include Cate Blanchett, Rosamund Pike and Sheridan Smith. In this performance, Heledd Gwynn captivates as Hedda, perfectly showing her multifaceted nature as powerless yet powerful, delicate yet harsh, emotional yet cold. Alexandria Riley also portrays the other prominent female character of Thea Elvsted with complexity and compassion. In contrast to the women on stage, the roles of the men really pale in comparison. Marc Antolin performs George with heart and charm, whilst also appearing farcical and a little pathetic – an inescapable part of the humour brought to the role by Friel’s adaptation.
The design and wardrobe of the production really make it a wholly immersive experience. What begins with silk textures, flowers and pastel colours, is transformed with gunshots and fire into strewn ash, smoke, and darkness. For a play that is set within just a single setting, it has the feeling of a million different places. Despite being written over a century ago, Hedda Gabler is a timeless play that never loses its pertinence.