It’s not often I feel like I know a play’s protagonist before a performance has officially begun.
In Richard Eyre’s version of Hedda Gabler, the titular heroine is “unofficially” introduced to her audience even as they take their seats. As she writhed expressively on her fainting couch with all the melancholy restlessness we’ve come to expect from the tale of a bored Victorian housewife, images of a dozen similar heroines flashed through my mind, from Edith Wharton’s Undine Spragg to Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. What is not so recognisable in Henrik Ibsen’s tale of the dark side of domesticity are the motives behind Hedda’s behaviour. Although preoccupied by maintaining the standards of her class, she does not seem particularly driven by financial gain, nor by passion for a lover, rather she enjoys watching her victims squirm much the same way a schoolboy finds morbid fascination in pulling the legs off a bug.
Hedda is a fascinating anti-heroine, and it’s easy to see why her namesake has cropped up time and again in popular culture. The triumph of Nicola Daley’s confident performance as Gabler is her ability to bring to life all of the character’s complexities. But the key to understanding Hedda lies in recognising that underneath her formidable presence and poise lies a desperately lonely child who has never transcended past the phase of ‘acting out’. Of course such churlish behaviour can only end in disaster, heralded by the arrival of Judge Brack, brilliantly performed by Benny Young, the only character who truly gets the measure of Hedda and employs such insight to devastating effect. In true childish fashion, Hedda seeks experiential pleasure and this jars completely with the academic pursuits of her husband and associates. To varying extents, all of the characters indulge their fantasies of what their lives could become but Hedda is the only one who truly lives to feel, taste and touch; making the piece a shrewd critique of the enlightenment.
Although well intentioned and devoted in his own way, Hedda’s husband George, played superbly by Lewis Hart is emotionally detached from his wife, revering fellow writer Eilert Loevborg to such an extent that he completely fails to identify him as a potential rival for her affections. This crude worship of academia reaches a crescendo with Eilert’s despair over a lost manuscript which he treats as his child, a reverie made more shocking by hints made throughout the play that Hedda may herself be carrying a baby of flesh and blood. When read this way, new light is shed on Hedda’s psychosis by which we might at least understand her acts of wickedness, even while we are repelled by her.
A strong cast, led by a real find in Nicola Daley played with delicious wit and vigour plus some stunning set design, Hedda Gabler put a fresh spin on the tired conventions of the Victorian melodrama.
Hedda Gabler plays at the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh from now until April the 11th.