After the phenomenal success of A Dolls House (1879), Hedda Gabler (1891) by Norwegian master playwright Henrik Ibsen, didn’t go down that well with late 19th century audiences. Instead of overtly attacking the establishment, most particularly the crappy controlled lives of women, Hedda was considered an arrogant, power-crazed, unfeeling figure – a study in mental illness, even (Freud was on the up in those days). Yet, as this audacious and flashy production proves, with the right treatment, Hedda Gabler gets better with time.
A contemporary setting has our tragic heroine Hedda, (the fabulous Laia Marull), and her new husband, Jörgen Tesman, (the disarmingly cuddly Ernest Villegas), move into a chichi if freaky geometric abode, like Barcelona’s Mies van der Rohe Pavilion but with views of the forest. Already there’s a struggle going on between order and nature.
They’re completely mismatched! Jörgen is a studious affable bore, Hedda is a flamboyant frivolous flirt. But there’s a dynamic tension between the two that manipulates the action. While he’s all passive-aggressive ambition, she’s all dramatic entrances and exits: from the moment she bursts in, it’s like black and white went Technicolor, like easy listening went disco. She staggers around, divinely nonchalant, she drapes herself on the sofa like a glamour-puss rug. And Jörgen? Does he goggle at her, tongue lolling, as he rightly should? Nope. He smirks and rolls his eyes at his elderly relative, the prying and pushy auntie Júlia (Marissa Josa). Hedda may be a tigress, but there’s already a feeling that they’re closing in on her … accentuated by looming shadows and interrogatory lighting. She’s being backed into a corner and may be pushed to retaliate.
Enter an old flame of Hedda’s, Ejlert Løvborg (a sneaky-eyed Pablo Derqui), and Ejlert’s new flame, the unlikely Thea Elvsted, (Cristina Genebat). Thea is to Jörgen what Hedda is to Ejlert (try saying that quickly) – only more extreme. Ejlert is the sort of man one scrapes up from the floor of an after-hours at midday, Thea, married to a politician, is desperate enough to scrape. Together they have created a marvellous manifesto, it proposes a new life for both of them. Hedda sees this new life in book form as a horrible threat to her own.
The real strength of David Selvas‘ production, apart from the soundtrack, is the way it plays with the tension between self-control and self-defence, which manifests itself in the control of others. Each character, each actor, mightily holds their own, yet the focus of the play never shifts from Hedda; it’s like interactive puppet theatre, with each character pulling the strings of another. Fate and freedom are confused in this madcap cat’s cradle.
And the string-pulling goes beyond what goes on on the stage. Hedda has a dangerous penchant for swinging her pistols, inherited from her army general father – a prominent absent presence in the play. As Hedda squirms and giggles before the outrageously pervy Brack (the brilliant Francesc Orella), you have to wonder about her relationship with her dad, about the sort of games she is used to playing to get what she wants.
Hedda Gabler dir. David Selvas
Teatre Lliure – Gràcia
The play is in Catalan
Until June 16th, 2013
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Thank you! Anna Aurich, and Felipe Mena for the photos