by Henrik Ibsen (1891)
Version by Brian Friel (2008)
Directed by Gareth Machin
Designed by James Button
Salisbury Playhouse Production
Salisbury Playhouse, Saturday 2nd April 2016 14.15
Kirsty Bushell – Hedda Gabler
Ben Caplan – George Tesman, Hedda’s husband
David Bark-Jones – Judge Brack
Damian Humbley- Eilert Loevborg
Kemi Bo-Jacons – Thea Elvsted
Petra Markham – Bertha, servant to the Tesmans
Jane Wymark – Juliana Tesman, George’s aunt
Henrik Ibsen has three entries in Michael Billington’s 101 Greatest Plays of All Time and even then, Hedda Gabler wasn’t included. I still think of Henry Gibson on the Laugh In, whose little hiccup made his name so similar, though in general Ibsen is not a load of laughs. The pistol on the programme and flier says it all. The rule book for Scandinavian and Russian playwrights has a very short final chapter on how to end a play. There is just one scenario, and it involves a gun, a loud gunshot, suicide of the name character, and for stage management reasons, it should happen in an ante-chamber (but may be revealed afterwards). I know those Northern wintry landscapes are depressing, but there are other possible, less brain-spattered endings.
The two tags this play gets is that for female actors it’s the career pinnacle, the Hamlet role for women, and that, as the excellent programme essay tells us, Ibsen put a great deal of himself into Hedda, so that she is “Ibsen in skirts.”
The version is by Brian Friel, and that’s the missing programme essay. I would like to know what he did with it, as a major playwright himself. I have no comparison, at least in memory, with other versions. I gather that he added the judge’s mannerism of squeezing alleged Americanisms into conversation, like Razzle-dazzle, and Making Whoopee. He also made George, Hedda’s husband, more of a humorously fussy irritating person with verbal diarrhoea and less of a dull, serious scholar. Friel’s 2008 version was done by Sheridan Smith at the Old Vic in 2012, and I wish I’d seen that one, not because there was anything less than stellar about this Salisbury version, but just because I like Sheridan Smith in anything. Interestingly, The Guardian gave that three stars but this version got four. A tiny Friel marker is an Irish “bringing” when standard RP English would be “taking” – a characteristic which Irish English exported to New York and Boston. I find it mildly irritating in an otherwise RP English text and would switch it.
L to R: Bertha (Petra Markham), George (Ben Caplan), Aunt Ju-Ju (Jane Wymark). George has just returned with Hedda from their six month honeymoon trip.
Salisbury went for the era when the play was written, and declares it is September 1890, with a cool, pale grey set and furniture. The walls to the room were semi transparent, so you could see characters entering and exiting before they got to the door, and it was centred on a huge portrait of Hedda’s dad, the one who bequeathed her the set of duelling pistols, old General Gabler.
Hedda Gabler (Kirsty Bushell)
In the Salisbury production, Hedda is played by Kirsty Bushell, and superbly too. Maybe Hedda is every actresses’s Hamlet, but we saw Kirsty Bushell in the RSC’s 2012 “Shipwreck Season” and her Olivia was outstanding in Twelfth Night. Her Hedda is authoritative, cruel, a bully, a bitch, sexually alluring, a tease, genuinely agonized over her fear of making the “jump” with Eilart Loevborg in the past, confused, scornful of the creepy attentions of the judge, and tearful. Hedda has a lot of listening and reacting, and has to switch false smiles on and off. Kirsty Bushell also had tears running down her face at least twice, and full marks indeed for putting so much into a disappointing matinee audience.
Hedda’s scholar husband, George Tesman, is one of Friel’s embellishments. He’s funnier. Ben Caplan has his hands shaking nervously much of the time. He can’t stop talking, much of it trivial, particularly to Hedda’s ears. He spent most of their honeymoon trip researching and copying old manuscripts. His long celebration of his slippers, hand embroidered with a new flower for every birthday is both a very funny delivery, but also a major moment in letting Hedda’s frustration listening to all this come out, so apparent in Kirsty Bushell’s facial reactions. I made a mental note, ‘great cuff acting’ because when he and the judge are in evening dress, George’s cuffs protrude far too much from the sleeves, giving a perfect setting for his ever-twitching hands. George is the good guy, clearly less talented than his writing and academic rival, Eilert Loevborg. George is too dumb to realize that Eilert is also a rival for Hedda’s affections, and her ex-lover. But then George blithely misses every hint about Hedda’s swelling tummy and their future child. When she finally gets it through to him, he goes into a scene of frantic excitement over choosing a name (mainly based on those Hedda loathes, Aunt Ju-Ju and the servant, Bertha) while she just sits centre stage and reacts facially.
L to R: George, Hedda, Eivert. She is showing him picturs of their six month honeymoon
Damian Humbley plays Eilert Loevborg. I looked up the various adaptors of the play and saw John Osborne’s name. I can see why he was drawn to this earlier angry young man. Eivert is the unconventional, charismatic, drunken and debauched artist (though an artist of historical interpretation), as necessary to the Northern European drama as the gunshot. Did Friel make the description of his death more explicit? I’d guess so. Far from dying the “beautiful death” Hedda envisages when she hands him the pistol, he returns to Madame Circe’s brothel and accidentally shoots himself in the genitals … I wrote penis, then testicles, but the judge’s explicit gesture was too vague to determine which, or whether it was both.
Judge Brack (David Bark-Jones) and Hedda (Kirsty Bushell)
Judge Brack (David Bark-Jones) is the smooth predator, hoping to set up a triangle with Hedda behind George’s back.He’s smart, suave, well-spoken – which is perhaps why Friel gave him this contrasting delight in “Americanisms.” He’s a creep, and it is when Hedda realizes his power over her that she does the Chekhov’s gun (Chekhov pronounced that if a gun is seen in a play, then it must be fired.)
Thea Elvsed is the other major role. She has deserted her older, magistrate husband in Trondheim to follow after Eivert. Though she is mild, diffident, and was bullied mercilessly by Hedda at school, she is the opposite of Hedda in every way. She’s from a poorer background … her father was a storeman, compared to Hedda’s general. She has just made the courageous jump from respectable stifling boredom by following Eivert. She has collaborated with Eivert on the book which owes its clarity to her, he says. She will collaborate with George on reassembling Eivert’s notes after Hedda has burned the manuscript of his new book. Hedda is the past, a woman whose image is written by the men pursuing her beauty, aristocratic, demanding of expensive furniture, a butler and a horse. Thea, in spite of what Hedda calls “her stupid curls” is the future.
We had tickets for a Tuesday evening at the start of the run, but a family medical appointment meant we couldn’t attend and we gave our tickets away. Our next available slot was this, the final day of the run. Like many Salisbury productions, that appears to be that. No tour. Lost in the ether. I’m always surprised they don’t tour fine Salisbury productions with excellent casts and an excellent set. In a way, that’s a reason to make sure you don’t miss one. I hope they’re contemplating a streaming / video route eventually.
Every time I want to praise Salisbury’s seating. Most people can easily pass along the rows without people standing up.
No one concerned with this owns a wood-burning stove. Hedda opens the stove twice with her bare hand grasping the metal handle. Do not try this at home. You will lose all the skin from your palm and end up in hospital. You need a glove or a tool. This is not being picky. Years ago, we regularly used the BBC English Teaching series On We Go where a roast chicken is declared to be ready, and is then taken from an oven with bare hands. Every class we played it to laughed and pointed it out.
OTHER REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
All My Sons, Talawa Theatre (Ann Deever)