Palindrome Theatre’s production starts with a newly-created soliloquy that floods past with only a few well-worded phrases coming through clearly. It is a confusing beginning, but the staging hints at fine things to come: grand storm sounds, clever use of props, such as a torch for on-stage lighting effects, and set – chairs and tables, and a suspended can for pouring water onto the stage – and, above all, a cast that is in sync, with focus and controlled physical energy. The play itself then comes to life with intensity, real speech rhythms and modern psychological characterisations that are also heightened in their delivery without damaging believability – a sign of very fine acting. Possibly the performances are particularly strong because most of the cast were involved in Palindrome’s full, more traditionally presented, version of the play earlier this year.
It is a little strange that Palindrome Theatre should specifically mention the playwright in the title Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, but perhaps this is to reassure people that the script, while a new adaptation with a modern setting and cut down to 90 minutes, is still faithful to the essence of the original. The affect of Victorian society on characters’ choices is not fully reflected, so “Ibsen’s stifling society” is not as strongly portrayed, but the expectations of academia work well and there is still a sense of Hedda coming from a different social world.
Ibsen’s play sees the central character, famous as a major role for women (she has been called a counterpart to Hamlet for actresses), pursuing her own self-centred ends with a deliberate malice in her attempts to find what she feels she needs in life, hitting out, and in, and causing destruction. Robin Grace Thompson is excellent and brings a feverish quality and a driving idealistic need to Hedda’s manipulations. Nigel O’Hearn, also the adaptor, creates a vulnerable Eilert Lövborg whose attractiveness to the women and fatal return to drink is believable, and Chase Crossno portrays a fragile strength that makes sense of Thea Elvsted’s role in others’ lives. Hedda’s husband George Tesman is a recognisable academic, with both boring, frustrating and redeeming qualities shown well, and Judge Brack a somewhat menacing ‘friend’, also completely self-focused, while the maid Berthe has a feel of her own life, relationships and understanding playing beneath her work.
There are a number of moments of great emotion and the hints of what might come are clearly, though subtly, directed, creating suspense well. The acting is very strong and the play itself fascinating, here with a pared down and contemporary driving energy that means this Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, while longer than many shows in the Fringe, passes with speed. In all, this is a mesmerising production.
By Danielle Farrow
5 – 29 August (not 10, 17, 24), 14:15 (15:45) @ Hill Street Theatre