Monday 20 August 2018

Has 'Hedda Gabler' a lesson for feminists?

  • Hedda Gabler, Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton
  • Home, New Theatre, Dublin
Lizzy Watts and Richard Pyros in Hedda Gabler, coming to the Gaiety in March
Lizzy Watts and Richard Pyros in Hedda Gabler, coming to the Gaiety in March
Gemma Kane and Megan O'Malley in 'Home' at the New Theatre

Emer O'Kelly

A new version of 'Hedda Gabler' is savagely stark.

When Patrick Marber adapted Strindberg's Miss Julie, he set it on election night in England immediately after World War II - the night Britain turned on Churchill, the man who had brought them successfully through that war. It was pitch perfect.

Now he has written a new version of Hedda Gabler, with a less striking context, but equally powerful, and more importantly, equally faithful to Strindberg's obsession with women's lack of control over their own lives.

He saw their frustration, he saw men's abuse of their own power even when they wielded it benignly; but his vision was dark.

Gemma Kane and Megan O'Malley in 'Home' at the New Theatre
Gemma Kane and Megan O'Malley in 'Home' at the New Theatre

Shaw believed in women's duty to take control through making themselves financially self-supporting rather than dependent; Ibsen believed that women's emotional frustration usually prevented such courage. The exception to this was Nora in A Doll's House: she takes control, but at devastating cost.

Hedda has no such courage: she becomes increasingly penned into the cage of her own making when she opts for the security of marriage to a man she doesn't love, who even bores her. And she pays the only price she can pay when she turns her father's gun on herself.

Marber has set his version in today's world, while Belgian director Ivo Van Hove has visualised it for Britain's National Theatre in an only vaguely Nordic atmosphere, spare, a little coldly spacious, and very much of today as the visitors to the Tesmans's new apartment announce themselves on a visualised intercom before admittance.

There are post-modern touches, as the cast nail rough wooden panels across the chic windows before the final apocalyptic scene (as women in earlier centuries were immured for their pregnancy "confinements".)

Hedda remains culturally outside it all, even as she rails against it: Lizzy Watts as Hedda wears a satin slip without underwear throughout, a cross between vulnerability to her husband's night-time advances, and her feeble attempts at daytime sexual freedom through her lovelorn fantasies concerning the broken reed, the alcoholic Eilert Lovborg (Richard Pyros), protege of her husband.

And it is played throughout with the sexual predator and blackmailer, Judge Brack (Adam Best) who precipitates Hedda's trapped suicide, as possibly the only character grounded in reality. Hedda's sickeningly self-absorbed husband (Abhin Galeya) and the supportively adoring Mrs Elvsted (Annabel Bates) all seem to share Lovborg's fatal detachment, the detachment from reality which allows Hedda to consign him to perdition with almost idle spite. Spite is her only weapon, and she wields it, even against her husband's sad little aunt.

The set and lighting for this extraordinarily impressive production are by Jan Versweyveld with costumes by An D'Huys.

Hedda Gabler is currently touring the UK (at the Grand Theatre Wolverhampton this week) and will play the Gaiety in Dublin for just one week from March 6. Book now is my advice, for a sombre reflection on women's place in society, as relevant today as it was in 1890.

*******

The premise of Home is unlikely; it's also not a play in any sense of the word. But that does not in any way detract from its topical value. Nor for that matter, in this Handy Baker production at the New Theatre in Dublin, does it present itself as documentary. But it works, and it's of value.

Handy Baker is a new/young company led by Megan O'Malley, who is still a post-graduate student of theatre. She has written Home, and plays central character Anna. Anna is 19, gets very unattractively drunk in her own flat while her sister is present, and "falls victim" to visitor Mike, who has been encouraged by his unpleasant mate Patrick ("She's gagging for it".) Except that Anna isn't. And she's pregnant.

Complications follow when her indignant sister Emily bullies her into reporting the rape (unwillingly.) Then her plans to travel for a termination are messed up because she has exams, so she imports abortion pills. Before she takes them, Emily sees an opportunity for some women's rights propaganda, and has her sister injuncted for breaking the law.

At the subsequent trial, even Mike admits that he thinks she did the right thing in terminating the pregnancy. And the audience has to decide: in this amalgam of complex moral ambiguities it's not a matter of where your sympathies lie, it's a matter of the law. Or is it?

O'Malley's text tries gamely and impressively to present both sides of the argument with conviction. It also, wisely, leaves nothing to the imagination in the description of self-induced abortion, the only option for so many women under Ireland's current laws.

The audience is given voting slips: guilty or not guilty? On opening night, the vote was 34 not guilty against 12 guilty. (I did not vote.) A reflection of the current public mood? It remains to be seen.

Home is directed by Fiona Frawley and the cast also includes Gemma Kane, Ethan Dillon and Gordon Quigley.

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