Is Hedda Gabler a feminist text? Can it be? Should it be? Selma Dimitrijevic’s adaptation of the Ibsen play comes close on the heels of Ivo van Hove’s sleek, stark and captivatingly performed, but deeply problematic, production for the National Theatre .
Part of Northern Stage’s Queens of the North season, along with a gender-swapped version of Frankenstein, Dimitrijevic’s Hedda is at once more conventional – the characters’ dress is era-appropriate and Tesman and Brack are cast to type – and an attempt to do something different: to take the audience inside Hedda’s mind rather than view her as a puzzle to be solved.
It’s a visually striking production, a treat for the eyes. Designer Tom Piper has imagined the Tesmans’ new home as a smoked glass box with billowing curtains backlit in blue and awash with crimson flowers; it is at once opulent yet it also contains faint traces of decay. Victoria Elliott’s Hedda strides around this room in a gorgeous teal gown. But visual panache doesn’t always make for visceral theatre. The production lacks the merciless precision and emotional intensity of the Van Hove Hedda. There is a lot of pacing around the stage, but little in the way of energy and actual tension.
There are very capable performances – Ed Gaughan is an appealingly schlubby Tesman and Rachel Denning a fittingly harried Thea – but they rarely connect with one another, and the stakes throughout feel oddly low. When Scott Turnbull’s Lovborg takes that fateful drink at Hedda’s behest, it’s like he’s been tempted into eating an unwise extra pastry at breakfast, rather than the life-capsizing moment of weakness it ends up being.
Elliott’s Hedda is, inevitably, the most interesting presence. What’s most notable is her normality. She’s a kind of every-Hedda, rather than the enigmatic, mercurial, manipulative ‘nasty’ woman that is more commonly portrayed.
She’s lively, at times almost jolly – even when wielding her pistols. This a Hedda not without humour. There’s little sense of damage and inertia, only the sense that she is pinned in, by dull men and gleaming walls. This this feels like a commentary on the masks women wear daily and the bullshit they so often smile through, but it doesn’t quite hold. While Dimitrijevic weaves dialogue from The Wild Duck into her condensed text, the production’s most intriguing device occurs in scenes where Hedda is being discussed by others or excluded. The lights flick to red and Elliott appears to step outside the world of the play, to watch from afar, to quietly rage.
This feels only partially developed as an idea (and occasionally has the effect of making Hedda feel like one of the lesser X-men). The nature of the abridgement also means that her talk of vine-leaves seems to come from nowhere and the production’s final middle finger salute – to Brack, Ibsen, and the patriarchy – also feels more like a (justifiably) frustrated stamping of feet than an act of reclamation – or, indeed, reanimation.