By Sofya Grebenkina
Green Door Theatre Company’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler is a very popular choice, well-known to the general public and Durham students alike, as it appears on the English Literature syllabus.
Acknowledging the rich production heritage, Dominic Birch, Director, says he was inspired by the performance of Ingrid Bergman as Hedda because of the ‘line between a little bit crazy, absolutely dangerous, but also very vulnerable at the same time’, which she sustains throughout the production. However he has been careful to avoid a ‘simplistic reading’ of the play in which Hedda is a ‘whirl-wind’, one dimensional in her strength without any show of vulnerability.
The cast acknowledge that the characters are universal types, with a possibility of appearing in our daily life. Birch says that he has partially adapted the script itself to both modernize the language and the setting of the play, straying from the conventional interpretation of emphasizing the lifestyle of European bourgeoisie in the 19th century. Instead he wants the focus of the play to be left unhampered, by the ‘dead weight’ of the historical framework of reference, which he believes to be ‘psychological and family drama’.
Cassandra Bailly, playing Hedda Gabler, is similarly adamant that her character is ahistorical. Instead it is ‘a character study’ of a multifaceted individual afflicted by an idiosyncratic cocktail of weaknesses. To bring out Hedda’s vulnerability, Bailly has chosen to ‘react to what the other characters are saying’, as one of the difficulties of characterization is that ‘whatever I [Hedda] say is going to be a screen’, leaving the character’s actual emotions somewhat in the dark.
Rahul Ravi, playing George Tesman, feels that to make sure that the themes which are raised in the play continue to be relevant is Birch’s approach to direction. Getting ‘bogged down in historical drama’ is certainly off the cards, and instead what Birch claims really struck him on first reading the play was ‘the way in which social structures we create trap us’. Unlike A Doll’s House, which he believes explores mainly ‘the issues of women in the 19th century’, this play and particularly the character of Hedda ‘is more universal’.
The play, despite its alleged universality, does not offer us many characters with whom it is easy to sympathize. Ravi, talking about George Tesman, who is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the play, says that his saving grace is that he is ‘very naïve’ while at the same time being, admittedly quite limited to a field, but still ‘academically clever’. While his character shows poor skills in terms of adapting to his environment, nevertheless believes that Hedda is in ‘stark contrast’ in the way that she is ‘adept at manipulating conversation’.
Bailly elaborates, saying that although Hedda may have an unappealing ‘lack of sympathy for other people’ she is ‘trapped and emotionally disconnected from herself’. Judge Brack, on the other hand, is according to Ram Gupta, ‘manipulative’ with ‘a sharp eye on the weaknesses of certain characters’ managing to ‘capitalize on Hedda’s struggle’, thereby rendering himself entirely unlikeable.
The venue is St. Chad’s College Chapel, small in its size, which allows for an ‘intimate and intense’ experience for the audience. Birch wishes for the audience to ‘experience the psychological meltdown’ that occurs not only with Hedda, but with characters such as Eilert Lovborg, as the play moves to its resolution as he believes the size of the venue can only ‘amplify the emotions’ of the characters.
The pressure to forge a unique interpretation of Hedda Gabler is immense but the Green Door Theatre Company has all the potential and resources to pull off such a feat. Birch says that the main message this production will try to relay to the audience is ‘not letting yourself be driven to unhappiness by assuming a role you think you have to accept’.
Hedda Gabler will be performed in St Chad’s Chapel from Friday the 11th of March until Saturday the 12th of March at 19:30. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Dominic Birch