Alexandra Rego reviews the long-anticipated Byre production of Hedda Gabler.
Henrik Ibsen’s 19th century drama Hedda Gabler is a work that has been noted for its varied areas of complexity, to put it broadly. From more or less anticipating Freud’s psychoanalytic theory to providing what is still considered to be one of the most popular and complex female roles, the play stands on its own as a masterpiece of stage and script. Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I sat down in the Byre to see Sonder Theatre’s interpretation, directed by Joanna Bowman.
As a whole, the production maintained a consistent vision throughout, echoed through the performances of the cast, costuming, and set. The latter, with its later manipulation of the play’s denouement, seemed to evoke both a house with, literally, invisible but very present walls, and an enlarged marital bed, signifying the all-pervading oppression that marriage has on Hedda (Mishia Leggett) in her physical and emotional life. The hard-backed chairs that were cleverly rearranged throughout the show remained both thematically and contextually appropriate. Apparently, they were favoured in aristocratic Victorian households as it was considered good manners to sit up straight. The lighting was mostly pale and glacial, remaining consistent aside from a very obvious slip up towards the beginning of the show that seemed to momentarily turn on all the stage lights for a few seconds. It successfully evoked Victorian Norway, but did not do so in an obvious or overt manner. This deliberate ambiguity seemed to characterise the production, offering a strong interpretation of a very dense and beloved text.
The costumes, on the other hand, seemed to deviate from the consistent ambiguity that worked so well in the set and lighting. It was unclear as to whether the idea was to have all the characters in period dress, or contemporary dress, or just to have them look as though they were in costume. The three main female characters seemed to be wearing more or less the same skirt, which hinted at the Victorian era. However, the differentiation in shoes and blouses, which ranged from looking essentially like the American West to otherwise, made this similarity seem irrelevant. What tucking and pinning had occurred in the skirts looked very obvious, and more care could have been taken with hair, particularly considering how much Hedda goes on about Thea (Hannah Ritchie) and her “beautiful hair”. Equally, the men, while dressed in suits, all looked modern and uniform, which seemed confusing in comparison with the female characters.
In terms of the performances, it seemed each actor did an admirable job of carrying out Bowman’s vision for the text. The small cast seemed comfortable with the source material, the intensity of the production, and each other. As Hedda’s husband George, Sebastian Allum displayed remarkable comedic timing, though I would have liked to see his character retain a bit more of the emotional depth the text allows. Mishia Leggett perhaps had the most obviously difficult task of making Hedda contrastingly unpredictable and contained plus beguiling and ugly. The character has been criticised for representing what would later be a scientifically incorrect idea of mental health, written in a time when “female hysteria” was hastily diagnosed.Leggett’s performance showed awareness of the character’s charismatic but destructive command of the elements around her. Each scene, as promised, involved a certain amount of rearranging within the set, based on which character held the most power or was least in control. Silent, simplistic (though occasionally unsynchronized) dance interludes acted as a striking visual representation of these inter-relationships. It was unfortunate, therefore, that the production was unable to allow these elements to work together – it was difficult to understand what the production truly made of each relationship between the characters, making group scenes occasionally chaotic. It seemed uncertain whether to allow any one character to dominate or sway Hedda, which made the final scene with Judge Brack (Ebe Bamgboye) incredibly surprising, despite the strong interplay between the two actors.
Overall, the passion and attention to detail in terms of presenting a unique interpretation of Ibsen’s text was clear, and multiple individual elements of the production worked to create an immersive and creative piece. Sonder Theatre’s first foray into the Byre showed the company’s ability to manipulate a large and somewhat imposing space to their advantage. I look forward to seeing how this production may inform their next.
STARS: * * * *