The name Henrik Ibsen, if it resonates at all with audiences today, evokes images of claustrophobic drawing rooms in Victorian homes, stocked with desperate housewives who struggle against the Patriarchy. Ibsen was far more adventurous in his writing, of course; he grew weary of Realism just as he was heralded for creating it. But in spite of the broad range of his interests and writing styles, we still think of this Norwegian writer primarily as the Homer of female, middle-class angst.
"Hedda Gabler," his 1890 classic, is a case-in-point; here we find an officer's daughter hemmed in (it seems) by circumstances and left with no choice but to marry a kindly but ineffectual academic. Her sole delight, apart from firing off her dad's pistols, lies in manipulating the lives of the men around her; hence the tragedies that follow in her wake. Because of the historical setting-a time when women's rights was hardly thought of-Hedda's cruelty is usually seen as the inevitable result of her inferior social position. We are invited to view her with pity, and speculate how different she might have been if only she had lived in a more enlightened age.
Yeah, right. As. If.
It should come as no news to the women reading this review that Hedda lives and wreaks havoc every day in the modern, 'liberated' workplace. The sisterhood may exist in some corners of the business world but you are just as likely to encounter abusive, manipulative professionals who are secretly proud of the damage they do. And nowhere is this nightmarish, Hedda type more prominent than in-well, the theatre.
The National Theatre of Norway, a company literally founded under Ibsen's gaze (his 2nd-floor apartment, now a museum, stands within eyesight of its main stage), has produced and re-produced "Hedda Gabler" for over a century. And although they no doubt are expert at worshipful, period-dress stagings it should come as no surprise that some company members have had it up to here with the corset-and-bustle approach, and need to explore alternatives.
Norwegian audiences, like our own, deserve a break from the castor-oil earnestness of the Ibsen brand, and might prefer something engaging, contemporary and-dare I say it?-worth sitting through for a change. We tend to forget that in its day the character of Hedda was instantly recognizable and audiences often remarked how she reminded them of women they knew. Ibsen didn't give anyone the luxury of distancing themselves from Hedda; why should we treat her as if she were the relic of a bygone era? Why avoid the roots of her behavior, which transcend the historical moment when Ibsen created her? (Besides, we've got BBC videos for period-dress pablum if we really need it).
The production is clearly designed for people familiar with the play, but to help jog the reader's memory: the action takes place in the newly-refurbished home of Jørgen Tesman, a professor awaiting tenure, and his wife Hedda Tesman ("Gabler" being her maiden name). The newlyweds have just returned from their honeymoon when Hedda's former lover, Ejlert Løvborg (played with rakish flair by film veteran Jørgen Langhelle) returns into her life. Ejlert has apparently given up his drinking, published an amazing academic treatise, taken on new lover Thea Elvstad (the sympathetic Tone Geate Mostraum), and now seems poised to take the faculty position that Tesman had thought was his.
Hedda triple-dog-dares Ejlert to have just one more drink, with inevitable tragic consequences; she then proceeds to do her damnedest to destroy both his reputation and the manuscript of his latest book-a book which which very likely would have put her husband out on the street. Ironies abound, of course, because after Ejlert's tragic suicide Hedda finds her husband laboring with Ejlert's lover to salvage his late friend's reputation at the expense of his own. The next bullet, naturally, is hers.
Enveloping the performance of this bleak tale, however, is a classic theatrical ruse; before the show even starts we get to meet the genial actor Mattis Herman Nyquist, our Jørgen Tesman, in front of the curtain in street clothes. He and his fellow cast members hang out casually on the lip of the stage as Nyquist delivers a stand-up routine which consists of introducing and then dishing on the other actors (especially Andrea K. Bræin Hovig, the engaging actress who plays his wife Hedda-foreshadowing, perhaps?). This establishes the whole production as a two-layered affair, with Nyquest as Tesman, hosting friends and wife in the world of the play, as well as a Norwegian actor hosting an audience in the real world of the theater.