The most remarkable thing about Joanna Murray-Smith’s adaptation of Hedda Gabler – which replaces Henrik Ibsen’s hermetically-sealed world of the Norwegian bourgeoisie in the twilight of the 19th century with a slice of contemporary upper middle class Australian suburbia – is how unremarkable it is. That is not to say it is bad, but that it is good for a curiously self-defeating reason: that it leaves so much intact. Whole lines of dialogue, and even several longer exchanges, come across from earlier English translations virtually unchanged in Murray-Smith’s one act version. Her most original contribution is her first-rate line in barbed humour which makes its way into a great deal of the dialogue. What her adaptation doesn’t do is make the case for using an adaptation in the first place. I’m not convinced that, for example, Una Ellis-Fermor’s 1950 rendering in English for Penguin would not have done just as well. Ibsen’s writing, even removed from his native Norwegian, has always retained its essential precision and verisimilitude. Luckily for us, Murray-Smith seems to know this and, but for a modicum of discreet updating, Ibsen’s play comes to us as clearly as it has come to countless other audiences in the English-speaking world.
That clarity, in this production under the direction of new State Theatre Company artistic director Geordie Brookman, is buttressed by Geoff Cobham’s superb set and lighting design. The Tessman household, with its clean Scandinavian lines and sinisterly heavy, angular girders, uncomplicatedly echoes Hedda’s interior world. In one part of the main room is Jorgen’s writing desk. Like him, it is a dusty though charming throwback to another age. It is set against Hedda’s sofa, a still shrink wrapped slab of black, empty modernity, a void within a void, never quite in the right place. Outside the house, and only gradually revealed through Cobham’s subtly shifting lighting, stand a number of tall, gaunt trees, their tops unseen, their silvery limbs devoid of life. It is all intensely claustrophobic.
Alison Bell’s Hedda appears to us out of this shadowy, hemmed in world like a ghost, gorgeously backlit, her face utterly impassive as composer DJ TR!P’s characteristic fusion of hard electronica and musique concrète blares out. It’s a powerful, lasting image and, as it turns out, a hard act to follow; the opening scene between Jorgen Tessman (Cameron Goodall) and Aunt Julle (Carmel Johnson) feels flat and uninspired by comparison. There isn’t much Johnson can do to make Aunt Julle interesting – it’s a weightless part – but Goodall largely wastes the plum role of Hedda’s mediocrity of a husband. He is probably, in the first instance, a bit too young to convince in the part but, more fundamentally, gives us too many tics and not enough soul. He pitches his performance somewhere between Julius Sumner Miller and David Tennant’s Doctor Who – more lovably loopy science professor than bookish bore – and this works against the restraint of the rest of the ensemble.
Goodall is not helped – almost nobody in this production is – by Ailsa Paterson’s eccentric and attention-seeking costume design. When Jorgen re-emerges for Brack’s party kitted out in white shirt and trousers with suspenders and a bowtie, Goodall’s performance threatens to spill over from borderline over-the-top into outright parody. Bell, meanwhile, comes to us in a blur of seemingly sports luxe-inspired ugliness. Nathan O’Keefe, playing Eilert Lovborg, fares little better in an inexplicably large green pullover.
It’s a great shame Paterson has been allowed to mar the production in this way because her careless work diverts our attention from some fine acting: O’Keefe is both frightening and affecting as Jorgen’s anguished rival, Kate Cheel’s neurotic rendering of Thea Elvested is impressively three-dimensional, and Terrence Crawford, despite occasional lapses into scenery chewing, convinces as the inscrutable Judge Brack.
Bell’s Hedda is strong and well-crafted, her mastery of technique beyond doubt. But I don’t think her performance is the tour de force some critics have identified. She is a bit too arch, her alienness ultimately overpowering the crucial sense that Hedda’s frostiness conceals something human. Bell gives us nothing, not even one glimmer, of an invitation to empathise and this makes her Hedda more than simply difficult to like; it makes her almost impossible to understand, and certainly impossible to care about. Her suicide (played out, unlike in Ibsen’s original play, in full view of the audience) comes as less of a shock than a relief because Bell’s Hedda is not, in my view, quite the same as Ibsen’s in that hers is a woman who appears to be at the endpoint of a spiritual crisis from the moment the play begins, from the moment, in fact, Bell first materialises before us in that memorably and immaculately framed tableaux. Ibsen’s Hedda, on the other hand, is still there, at the epicentre of her psychological collapse, until Brack’s hold over her finally routs her will to live. What Brookman’s shrewd direction ensures is that, whether or not you know it’s coming, the trigger pull with which Hedda forfeits her life is still a genuinely heart-stopping moment.
I wish I could say which Hedda Brookman sees. The proof, I suppose, must be in the pudding (Brookman’s brief and reluctantly-written program notes certainly offer no clues). What I can say is that his cast mostly deliver, and that Hedda Gabler’s design elements – with the unfortunate exception of costumes – are wholly successful. What I can also say is that, at a time when Joanna Murray-Smith has more than one new play opening in other corners of the globe, it is regrettable that Adelaide audiences are seeing a commissioned adaptation of a 123 year-old European play instead. As I understand it, Murray-Smith’s Hedda Gabler was a carryover from Adam Cook’s recently ended eight year reign as State Theatre Company artistic director, but the fact remains – and it is a tantalising one – that in place of a fundamentally undifferentiated rehash of an overfamiliar play, we might have been seeing a world premiere by an Australian playwright.
The consolation (and it is a not inconsiderable one) is that Hedda Gabler is still a play that, in the right hands, can breathe. It has survived the decades because, like Shakespeare’s tragedies, it is tied above all to the human condition, to interior rather than exterior worlds. Under Geordie Brookman’s direction, this production is able to throw just enough light into those interiors to make the journey into Hedda Gabler’s tormented psyche a worthwhile, if not exactly essential, one.