Many of the world’s greatest Tragedies – Shakespeare’s in particular – are grounded on the character flaws of their titular characters: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and so on. However, although Hedda Gabler is undoubtedly the ticking time bomb at the heart of Henrik Ibsen’s revered classic, the numerous personal failings which contribute to the plays’unfolding tragedies are more evenly spread across the whole cast of characters – none of whom are entirely fault free.
Daley’s portrayal of Hedda – married name Tesman, but still very much her maiden name Gabler in character, it would seem – is controlled, distantly aristocratic and unashamedly snobbish, offering us a morally ambiguous, genuinely unlikeable rebel without a cause who is fundamentally bored with what her suffocating life has to offer.
This is, by no means, a bad thing, per se, but being given little reason or opportunity to sympathise with any of the characters on stage is dangerous, especially in a production which feels a tad listless – as languid, indeed, as when we first see Nicola Daley as Hedda, lounging silently on a chaise-langue on stage while the audience find their seats.
Daley’s portrayal of Hedda – married name Tesman, but still very much her maiden name Gabler in character, it would seem – is controlled, distantly aristocratic and unashamedly snobbish, offering us a morally ambiguous, genuinely unlikeable rebel without a cause who is fundamentally bored with what her suffocating life has to offer. It doesn’t help that, within the constraints of polite 19th century Hedda is at the mercy of men; yet she’s apparently a feminist icon of sorts precisely because she chooses to manipulate them in her turn, whenever she can.
Significantly, you can’t entirely dismiss her opinion of the people around her: new husband George Tesman (a puppy-like turn from Lewis Hart) finds everything so “amazing” that it’s clear he’s dazzled by life and only sees what he wants to see – time and again, he just doesn’t understand his wife at all. Tesman’s Aunt “Juju” Julia (a prim, fussing Sally Edwards) is, meantime, the buttoned-up embodiment of respectable bourgeois society in a small Scandinavian university town. It’s left to a deliciously Mephistophelian Benny Young (as a somewhat lecherous Judge Brack) and the rigid-backed Jack Tarlton (as Hedda’s former love Eilbert Loevborg) to brighten up the stage with something approaching dynamism.
This is director Amanda Gaughan’s first production for the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh, and it comes across as perhaps just too measured a take on the 2005 version by the Lyceum’s former Associate Director Richard Eyre. Yet it’s not without problems; on occasions, the actors seem determined not to look at each other, gazing outwards into space awaiting their cues, rather than ensuring their characters engage in conversation. Then there’s Jean Chan’s rather fragile-looking, quasi-realistic set. Dominated by glassless windows (allowing us to see through into the “hall” where some of the original play’s side-room action has been transposed), on the night of the review there were frequent occasions when the doors on either side opened unexpectedly for the cast.
At the same time, the set did contribute to the production’s growing sense of claustrophobia, thanks to both subtle lighting effects and, of course, the simple fact that the main wall regularly moves closer to the audience between acts. As a result, when darkness falls at the close of the play, it still does so with some real power and emotion.