Saturday 25 November 2017

Theatre: Ibsen wins O'Rowe-style

Classic theatre : From left, Keith McErlean, Peter Gaynor and Catherine Walker in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler in a new adaptation by Mark O'Rowe.
Classic theatre : From left, Keith McErlean, Peter Gaynor and Catherine Walker in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler in a new adaptation by Mark O'Rowe.

Hedda Gabler is motivated by a series of superficial pre-occupations as much as by her deep-seated determination never to be dominated, and always to have power over another individual. At least that is how Catherine Walker paints her from her entrance in Mark O'Rowe's new adaptation of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler at the Abbey. Walker makes her more than idly malicious; she is determinedly sulky and dissatisfied, innately cruel, and arguably verging on nymphomania.

The clarity of O'Rowe's modern dialogue is the obvious begetter of Walker's version…or perhaps more accurately the version of director Annabelle Comyn: but it is instantly arresting and absorbing. (Only the proliferation of "OK" and "I'm fine" jar against the Edwardian setting.) Hedda becomes more a person than a type more clearly than in any version I have seen.

In early productions, it was Hedda's casual discussion with Judge Brack, in almost academic terms, of the possibility and desirability of a ménage a trois, that shocked audiences as much as her vicious manipulation of Lovborg's vulnerability for her own jealous ends. That she tops it with a "new woman" lack of femininity in choosing suicide rather than accepting sexual blackmail with the likelihood of the ménage coming home to roost, gave the play its original notoriety.

In O'Rowe's version, the debate between Hedda and the Judge has a frisson of sexual foreplay, just as the prospect of social ruin if she is forced into court in a messy public scandal plays a part in Hedda's decision to blow her brains out, even if the overall motivation is despair at losing control over her own destiny. There's a "put up or shut up" element at work as Hedda's malice is out-manoeuvred by the man who is as cold-bloodedly manipulative as she aspires to be.

Comyn's directorial trademark of creating a near-perfect example of ensemble work is well to the fore in this production, as is the elegance of Paul O'Mahony's cool spacious set. It's a kind of well-bred restraint without the twee porcelain veneer of narrow suburban values, and the two combine to counterpoint the harsh intellectual demands of Ibsen's outsider stance on what were to become known as "family values."

How he would have reacted if he knew that more than a century after his death, middleclass women with all the advantages of equal education with men, would still be misinterpreting the nature of equality, can only be guessed at. There are many more Hedda Gablers around than there are quietly pioneering Thea Elvsteds (the young woman indifferent to social infamy in pursuit of both love and learning.)

And Kate Stanley Brennan makes Thea as vulnerable as she is stoic, while Peter Gaynor achieves the almost impossible in making Tesman as endearing a husband for the ungrateful Hedda as he is numbingly boring. Keith McErlean is a good combination of self-loathing and emotional confusion as the alcoholic Ejlert Lovborg. Jane Brennan supplies a stoic Aunt Julle.

But the production undoubtedly belongs to Walker and to Declan Conlon as a spine-chillingly cynical immoraliste Judge Brack.

The perfect lighting and costumes are respectively from Chahine Yavroyan and Peter O'Brien, and the AV design is by Hugh O'Conor. Music and sound are by Philip Stewart.

This Hedda Gabler is a classic theatre concoction smoothly blended into the world of 2015.

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