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Hedda Gabler

by on 28 February 2023

Compressed Tension

Hedda Gabler

by Harriet Madeley, after Henrik Ibsen

A Girl Called Stephen at the Reading Rep Theatre, Reading until 11th March

Review by Sam Martin

Written by Harriet Madeley and directed by Annie Kershaw, this contemporary adaptation of a classic Ibsen play highlights Hedda’s claustrophobia in her brand-new marriage and explores the tensions between old passions and current duties.  Kershaw’s direction draws on the pressures of conformity and casts the feeling of societal entrapment in a fresh light as the protagonist grapples with the traditions and ideals of her upbringing against her desire to embrace her past relationship with Isla.  This refreshing variation brings a well renowned story into the modern era.

The theme of entrapment is defined by Amy Watts’ inspired set design, creating a stage space for the dramas of Hedda’s life and the interweaving love stories between the central characters.   

The elevated stage holds Hedda and her world up for our viewing pleasure – a prize wife that is to be shown off at every opportunity.   The gaudy pink carpet and clash of the chintzy, ostentatious cushions against the traditional piano demonstrates the tensions in Hedda’s life – her upbringing, privilege, and heritage versus her new, expensive life as a kept wife.   However uncomfortable this clash of styles seems, this is overshadowed by the ominous, foreboding presence of the plastic sheeting, purposed as the walls of the Tesman’s living room.   I couldn’t help but dread their potential, violence fuelled purpose whilst simultaneously smirking at the fact that if any substance – violence induced or otherwise – were to be spilt, the plastic would prevent anything being stained in the Tesman’s pretence of perfection. 

If the set reflects the Tesman’s desires to be seen as a picture-perfect couple, the sound and lights helped to demonstrate the undercurrents of Hedda’s emotion as she wrestles with her desires and the expectations bestowed upon her.  Jamie Lu’s sound design does just that at crucial moments, utilising a powerful, low drone that sneaks into the audience’s awareness and slowly takes over, leaving Hedda gripped by its persistence and the audience drawn to her inner conflicts.   These moments highlight Hedda’s insecurities – her relationship with her parents, her repressed expressions of her sexuality and the looming announcement of her pregnancy.  Murong Li’s lighting design gives us plenty of drama too; the highlight for me being the red glow under the stage as the knife appears, again reflecting the undercurrents of Hedda’s emotions and the tension bubbling below the surface. 

The performance of Hedda (Anna Popplewell) is well timed, meticulous in its detail and captures the bitterness she feels in her current circumstance perfectly.  Hedda’s biting tone, masked by a cold smile, mirrors her annoyance in her new family.  Her reluctance to embrace life as the new Mrs Tesman provides some welcomed moments of comedy as she avoids excessive closeness with her new husband, dodging his requests for family dinner with his aunt, as well as requests for affection.   Popplewell effortlessly moves between contempt, pretence and panic as the plot unfolds and the entrance of Isla back in her life. 

Equally engaging is Mark Desebrock’s portrayal of George, oblivious to Hedda’s dislike of her new surroundings and like an excitable puppy, constantly eager to please.  The supporting cast, although at times a little too exaggerated in their characterisation, and therefore not as believable as Popplewell and Desebrock, help to paint a fuller picture of Hedda’s conflicting loyalties and desires.  As an ensemble they retell this classic with clarity, bringing the original tensions into the modern world.

A production seeped in tension and inner turmoil, centred on Hedda’s hesitancy to publicly acknowledge her feelings for Isla and her regret at her conformity to tradition.  There’s jealousy, betrayal, and tragedy, all beautifully told in this contemporary version.  Recommended viewing for audience’s who know and love the original, or anyone new to the story – you won’t be disappointed.

Sam Martin, February 2023

Photography by Harry Elletson

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