In Hedda Tesman, Cordelia Lynn has taken Ibsen’s most famous creation, Hedda Gabler – the bored and volatile young woman stifled by marriage – and re-imagined her as a woman in her 50s.
It’s easy to grasp the thinking behind this. Middle age often renders women less visible and valuable in a way less likely to happen to men.
In Lynn’s present-day adaptation, Hedda has been married to benign academic George for 30 years. Having lived in Boston for some time, the couple are only now returning to the UK so he can take up a new post.
This is not a sequel, rather a reshaping of the original play. In many ways Lynn sticks close to the source material. The most radical change is that the character of Thea is now Hedda’s daughter, the child she was never sure she wanted. Their relationship is predictably chilly, as well it would be if your mother used to threaten to burn off your hair when you were growing up. Now that Thea has left her husband and is enthused by her collaboration with bright young writer Elijah, envy has further soured things between them.
Hedda is played by Haydn Gwynne, who, aptly, played the character 30 years earlier at the Bolton Octagon in 1990, and she’s suitably cool, elegant and austere in the role. She flinches from the well-meant hugs of Aunt Julia (Jacqueline Clarke) and can barely contain her frustration at George’s similarly well-intentioned ministrations, be it trying to please her by buying her a crumbling old house or chastising her for having a gin before 6pm.
Gwynne is an actor of considerable poise and charisma, but it never seems completely plausible that she would have stuck with George for this long without finding some kind of outlet or escape, even if her career was derailed by pregnancy and the protracted illness of her beloved father. It’s hard to imagine Gwynne’s formidable Hedda sleepwalking into her future. It never seems credible.
Anna Fleischle’s set is dominated by an imposing portrait of the dead General Gabler and a pianist can sometimes be heard playing, a reminder of another of Hedda’s abandoned passions. This is atmospheric if a little on-the-nose and the production doesn’t quite pull off this sense of haunting.
Lynn’s play is at its most interesting when it deviates from the original. The messed-up relationship between Hedda and Natalie Simpson’s Thea has real dramatic potential – the interplay between a mother who never wanted to be one and a daughter painfully aware of this – but there’s very little sense of desire or emotional connection between Hedda and Irfan Shamji’s recovering alcoholic Elijah.
Anthony Calf gives a nicely understated performance as George, a man who has accepted his mediocrity. But, crucially, Holly Race Roughan’s production fails to capture the tension and escalating pressure that leads to the play’s brutal conclusion. An unnecessary epilogue further dilutes the emotional potency.