It’s like everything’s on fire.
Watching Hedda Tesman feels like menstrual cramps. No matter how much you contort your body, keep a clear head, or reason with the injustice, the fuzziness that accompanies that dull aching pain stays with you. It’s foreboding – you know, I know – that this will return. Hedda will always be painful. Every time I look at the text, or rewrite it (because I have tried, many times, in an attempt to find any kind of meaning in this woman’s unacknowledged suffering), that familiar tight knot in the depths of me returns and I can’t untie it until it decides to subside on its own. You and I know that Hedda will die. It’s written in the annals of literary history. But it still feels like being plunged into icy water.
There is something heavy in rewriting a well-rehearsed tragedy. Hedda Gabler, or Hedda Tesman as she appears in Cordelia Lynn’s adaptation, is perpetually trapped in a house, confined by a marriage, exposed on a stage. A new adaptation like this feels like an act of hope, a way to change the ending, but Lynn sticks so closely to the peaks and troughs of Ibsen’s drama that it feels like not much has changed at all. Thirty years on, Hedda is still remarkable. Her frustration is as unreasonable and passionate as it was when she was a young woman on Ibsen’s page. Lynn traps Hedda’s uncouth, flighty manners in a woman who has lived out her time in the company of a self-absorbed husband and an estranged daughter. She is not much different to the younger version of herself, except that she was able to tolerate her life for longer.
Holly Race Roughan encases this production in the house. Everything comes back to the rooms, the carpet, the ugly wallpaper, the desk and the guns – to the space Hedda occupies. Hedda whispers that “the house is talking”. Anna Fleischle’s design is singular and expansive, drawing my focus to individual pieces of furniture, to staircases that lead nowhere. The house is tall and wide, and yet feels too small, too boxed in. Guests have to sit on dining chairs in the living room and Hedda plays her piano in the kitchen. The mounting boxes and half made walls make it look a little like a deconstructed set – as if the technical crew have gone home for the evening, and it is just the ghostly outline of a decadent stage set that remains. A huge painting of a General, we assume Hedda’s father, stands next to the fireplace. When the lights dim, Zoe Spurr’s precise design emerges and a beam of warm light elongates across his eyes. This stage, this script, this story is full of ghosts.
Past, present and future have collapsed together and the story we know and have been told before repeats thirty years later, in a time that looks like now. Haydn Gwynne’s Hedda crackles with anger and intellect, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s queens and ancient Greek mothers. The men that stand beside her are small and bitter in comparison – flat and stiff. Jonathan Hyde (Judge Brack) and Anthony Calf (George Tesman) poke at her, always talking about her but never to her. Hyde’s eyes fix on Hedda, whereas Calf is always turned away, hardly ever looking her in the eye. Irfan Shamji’s chaotic Elijah tries not to let his toxic admiration of Hedda fester. Shamji lets it creep in, like a disease, eventually swallowing him whole.
Lynn and Race Roughan set up a different kind of Hedda – one that might do something different. Once she is set up though, Hedda is much the same as she always was. The faithful recreation of Ibsen’s story is frustrating, but maybe it is inevitable. Hedda is caged in by this story, by the inevitability of her own destruction.
It’s a failure of living.
Hedda Tesman runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until 28th September, then transfers to The Lowry from 3rd October. More info here.