Hedda Gabler review: ‘modest power’

By Jazmine Bourke

Upon approaching this production of Hedda Gabler, it’s reasonable to say I was slightly cautious. I had absolutely no idea what to expect: the only encounter I’d ever had with the text was in my dog-eared copy of Ibsen’s plays, mistakenly purchased for my first year reading list and afterwards confined to the dustiest part of the bookshelf. Slightly bitter at the wasted money, I’d made many promises to myself, but never quite gotten round to reading it – the Woodplayers’ production not only made me regret that decision, but question why it was ever removed from my course of study in the first place. It seems almost for granted that, being a renowned writer, I would praise Ibsen’s script for being thought-provoking and beautifully crafted; but the performance delivered by the Woodplayers had a modest power in its own right, independent from and external to the pre-set words.

For one, the acting at times was truly impressive: Eilert Lövborg (Nick Yeates) displayed a controlled and confident variance of tone and expression, whilst Kyle Kirkpatrick’s onstage chemistry with Hedda did well to create the mocking, less-than-likeable character of Judge Brack. In his portrayal of George Tesman, Ollie Godden was charming enough. A ball of bumbling excitability, his character was naïve, clueless, and infatuated with Hedda; however, at times one detected slight stagnancies in his delivery and intonation. Very rarely venturing out of his flustered persona, in moments of high emotional intensity Godden’s voice did not quite reach the authenticity required to reify its contents.

Despite the consistently good acting across the entire cast, it was with the female characters that the play truly came into its own. Alice Chambers deserves a special commendation. Taking the character of Thea Elvstead – one who could all too easily be taken for a flat, helpless character – she added brilliant but brief flashes of fierceness, expertly unlocking the nuances of her role which Ibsen no doubt intended. Stealing the show was the play’s namesake, Hedda Gabler (Jessie Smith) herself. Scornful and self-satisfied, brutal and beguiling, Smith’s Hedda demanded the audience’s constant attention: though vocally powerful with her curt comments and semi-hysterical shrieks, it was the unspoken that gave her performance so much power. Her subtle shifts in facial expression and body language corresponded brilliantly to the play’s action, allowing for no lapse in character or mood.

Jake Lennon and Poppy Blance made impressive attempts at directing and costume respectively, staying true to the realist style dominant in the 1890s. Although a little slow to start with, the intrigue of the play never faltered once established. The audience had ample opportunity to become invested in the play, which tastefully tempered dynamic, high tension moments with stillness and silence to emphasise the shifting fates of the characters.

The use of comic timing was also commendable: many a subtle joke, particularly from the sporadic appearances of Berte (Ben Walker) and the interruptions of Hedda had the audience chuckling at odds with the darker feel of the performance. Perhaps the build up to Hedda’s death could have been emphasised more – Judge Brack’s final solicitation of Hedda would have benefitted from a more explicitly sinister tone, whilst the suicide of Hedda seemed a little rushed and anti-climactic, but ultimately Lennon succeeded in capturing the dissatisfaction and desperation rife throughout the drama.

The Woodplayers chose an ambitious text, and for all their efforts their ambition was rewarded. An all-round enjoyable experience, humorous though solemn, the characters relatable even when at their most condemnable. The programme presented the idea of a close-knit team, and I’m inclined to believe it: the cast and crew’s individual efforts were only emphasised by their collective interplay, creating a cohesive production that anyone would be proud of. The Woodplayers managed to put their own spin on a remarkable text, and for that, I both commend them and look forward to future pieces.

‘Hedda Gabler’ was performed in Collingwood College from Saturday, 17th June until Monday 19th June at 19:30.

Photograph: Shannon Chatha

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