A cage looms over a brightly lit square on the Sherman Theatre stage. All around it on Rosanna Vize’s striking set is an oppressive ash-black darkness. At a piano – the only aged item in the box of slick, functional, milky-white design – Hedda hammers away in her beautiful blue dress. She’s very much alive – and very out of place.
And it’s clarity that permeates every corner of director Chelsea Walker’s vivid and compassionate take on Ibsen’s tragic heroine. Here, the exciting but often unfathomable and unlikeable heroine becomes coherent, controlled and (sometimes uncomfortably) easy to identify with. She’s your bright and beautiful but slightly toxic friend whose behaviour you excuse because, when they’re not causing a scene, they’re the most fun. And because you know she’s more than a little bit lost. And because you’ve met her awful father.
Walker’s production points us right at the root of Hedda’s pain. A stark row of raised chairs lined up behind the action increases the oppressiveness of the atmosphere. When they’re not part of the action, each of the characters, besides Hedda, returns to sit and watch in muted stillness – just waiting for their next entrance, when they descend the steps to toy with their plaything. There are shades of a court room, a surgical theatre, or a circus ring. This is Hedda as circus animal. This is Hedda being dissected.
The production so explicitly cages and judges her that it challenges the audience not to. It’s almost facile to say that this is a Hedda Gabler for the MeToo era. But she’s circled and ensnared by a trio of twats – Eilert (Jay Saignal), an emotional leech using women to feed his demons, the predatory Judge Brack (Richard Mylan, with shades of Weinstein), and her a spoiled and superficial man-baby of a husband George – and it’s clear she’s the victim, not the perpetrator.
With her pixie crops and strong frame, Heledd Gwynn gives us a poised, graceful and dignified Hedda, who staunchly refuses hysterics. It’s a compassionate and emotionally coherent performance, and even a tiny bit charming and fun. Even at her worst – which is berating the beloved housekeeper, Bertha, not shooting at men – her emotional life feels clear, logical and understandable. What could be more grating than being the woman of the house only to find your housekeeper treated with more real affection and regard – more like family – than you are? It’s almost impossible not to feel compassion for a young woman who has never been seen on her own terms. The production – aided by Joseff Fletcher’s woozy yet startling lighting design – shines a spotlight on her brightness and beauty only to show that the people in her life are in the dark about who she is.
And then there are the flowers. Too many flowers. Almost as many as there are references to Hedda’s beauty, or her rounding belly. Vases full of them are lined up rows on the piano, table and floor, until Hedda is driven to rip them up and scatter them around the room. It’s an obvious catharsis: she wants to destroy her beauty; remove the obfuscation, to get some clarity. But suffocated and ignored by her husband, there is no route to it.
Mark Antolin is highly watchable as George Tesman, giving a nuanced and charged performance. He smartly transforms him from a silly, frustrating fool wallowing in childlike self-importance into an outright self-regarding parasite, taking what he needs and leaving the rest to rot. Indulged and vain, he seems outwardly harmless to everyone – except to the audience, and to Hedda. As he careens around the stage like a spinning top, jumping from thought to thought and revelling in his aunts’ adoration, he drowns Hedda in the same kind of superficial exaltation.
And the incisiveness and consistency of Walker’s production in no way reduces the drama’s impact. Hedda’s no less powerful for making total sense. Women, after all, aren’t all deranged, vain harlots. Sometimes, they’re driven to it by men. Indeed, when the looming cage finally falls, Hedda is the one who is finally free.
Hedda Gabler runs at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff until 2nd November. More info here.