Zoë Hofstetter talks about the shockingly realistic effect of Brian Friel’s direction of Hedda Gabler at the West End. 


The Old Vic where ‘Hedda Gabler’ is currently enjoying its West End run with Sheridan Smith as Hedda.

A ghost-like figure lingers behind fragile glass doors in a newly bought and decorated aristocratic home. The whiteness of the woman’s attire and the ghostly gliding of her step immediately reveal the mysterious and unreadable Hedda Gabler. Her entrance is an order for us to keep our eyes on her throughout the play. To see or not see her through the puppet-like characters whom she manipulates and torments; we feel her even when she is not there.

Indeed, there were no curtains; do you see curtains veiling the miseries of today? No, it is only self-imposed blindness by people like George Tesman, whose joy over hand-embroidered slippers and the news of a baby makes him oblivious to Hedda’s disintegrating soul and evil intentions.

What am I talking about? Why, it is a play, but the acting, the setting, the dialogue and the drama barely seem like theatre at all: it is real life! And we are in it. “Which character do you see yourself being?” I was asked immediately after exiting the life-like experience of Hedda Gabler. “Judge Brack”, I replied, for he seemed to be the only one with a personality that would not be dominated by Hedda’s, and whose life consisted of entertainment beyond living vicariously through others. But one can only imagine being one of these characters because they are actors pretending not to be actors—and that is the height of the dramatic art.

The realism of the play transcends not only through its form and the talent of the actors, but through the very setting. The setting is all about fragility: the glass might be shattered or splattered with blood at any moment. It is merely an extension of Hedda, for she can see through all the characters, directing her evil impulses at the heart of every one of them. Furthermore, the glass panes are doors, which are constantly being opened, closed or slammed by different characters, locking in the secrets being revealed behind their invisible deafness. However, it is mostly Hedda locking people in with her, either to find out Mrs. Elvsted’s rather obvious desires for Loevborg or for sprouting evil ideas in her suitors.

Yet why would Hedda Gabler be of interest today? We have enough realism and misery to deal with in our own present times without more through the theatre. This is when we must praise Henrik Ibsen for his literary genius; for his setting and his subject matter transcend time, waterfalling into the present as if it belonged to it. Although the play is not immediately about an economic crisis, the setting resembles the fragility of world affairs today—not only in economic matters, but also in the central theme of the play: the breaking of traditional domestic roles. One hears more and more often women stating they will not have children; will not marry, that they aspire to be president of a company, or wish to create their own. This was unthinkable in the 1890s, but it definitely anticipated the future in which the importance of a traditional and male-dominated family is marginal, if not offensive.

The shocking realism of Brian Friel’s Hedda Gabler cannot only be explained by the talent of West End actors; we should also praise the transcendence of Ibsen’s genius—one that pokes its nose every so often in the daily portrait of life, one in which one can enter and leave without curtains separating the stage from the seats, because a play is merely a commenting mirror of society.


Zoë Hofstetter

Image credit- The Old Vic, Chensiyuan

Image credit- Ticket, Zoë Hofstetter