"I do still believe in beauty," says Hedda Gabler, before urging Lovborg to "make it beautiful" when he threatens suicide. And this is exactly what Annabelle Comyn has done with Mark O'Rowe's classical version of Henrik Ibsen's text: made it beautiful.
Elegantly costumed by Peter O'Brien, and delightfully designed by Paul O'Mahony in a free-standing dark wood frame, Comyn shows complete command of the large Abbey stage. Unafraid of the surrounding space, she creates an airy arena for a big drama.
The production foregrounds the horror Hedda has for scandal. The scene changes are accompanied by a Philip Stewart soundscape including whispered chattering and a giant screen covering the rear wall has images of random walking legs. The public world is ever-present.
Catherine Walker does a terrific job as the original super-bitch of modern theatre. Both version and production accentuate the suffocating restrictions placed on women in late 19th-century society, and Walker enunciates this perfectly as she laments her lack of access to a world "so utterly denied to her". The trick with Hedda is to elicit the audience's empathy, despite her badness, and Walker achieves this. Peter Gaynor is excellent as the innocent husband Tesman, getting many laughs whilst maintaining total dignity. Declan Conlon is vulpine as Judge Brack, the only character whose manipulativeness equals Hedda's.
The downside of all the beauty and classicism, however, means there is no sense of risk. Hedda's impulsiveness is well portrayed by Walker, but the unpredictability is not at all emulated by the production. What we do get is a tightly disciplined, highly enjoyable presentation of the most intriguing female character ever created for the stage.