‘This team fully deserved their standing ovation and rapturous applause…
Hedda Gabler is a notoriously difficult play. With a narrative driven by complex chasms between male and female characters, further underpinned by deep layers of emotional baggage between almost every pairing of characters, the script can feel confusing and stilted. Hild Bede Theatre avoided this on the whole, allowing these chasms and complex plot points to shine in their freshers’ production.
There is a gorgeous intimacy created upon entry into Caedmon Hall’s space; darkly atmospheric music plays as we are faced with the beautifully designed set, cast in a harsh blue glow. I liked the choice to face us with the set in this light, and production manager Adams Yeung should be commended for his lighting and sound throughout. The set was on the same level as the audience, and though this created issues with sightlines at points, it certainly created an intently intimate sense of space. The directing team of Honor Pink, assisted by Henry Parker and Tom Taylor use this space highly effectively. Actors stand pensively and anxiously, often downstage, drawing the eye to their characters’ reactions and motives, even when not speaking, allowing us to further unpack characters’ relationships based on how they stand in relation to others.
The cast were brilliant overall. Connie Richardson’s charming depiction of Juliana Tesman, a devoted, family-driven aunt injected energy into the play’s opening, and her interactions with Alex Evans, playing Bertha, lay the foundations of pre-existing relationships and tensions within the world of the play. They both acted with acute sympathy for their characters’ anxieties surrounding Hedda’s welcoming into the family’s domestic sphere, and wonderfully used facial expressions and vocal tone throughout to achieve this. Matthew Travis’s George was lively, physicalising a man devoted to academic study, rendering his obliviousness to his wife’s needs and desires; the incongruity of his pairing with Hedda is actualised fantastically by him and Grace Graham from the offset in their physicality and pacing. I did feel that elements of Travis’s direction were slightly ineffectual, especially in his scenes with Thea, played by Phoebe Murray, and would have liked to see more warmness and tenderness in their opening dialogues where the pacing felt slightly stilted. That said Murray’s performance was carefully crafted and considerate of Thea’s desire for freedom, and Murray’s facial expressions and subtle gestures were a highlight of the play’s acting.
Josh Bernald Ross and Max Pearson’s depictions of Ejlert Lovborg and Judge Brack respectively were intricately fantastic in their almost diametrically opposing portrayals of manhood; Ejlert allowed himself to be held under the ‘power’ of Hedda and Thea at various points in his life, and succumbed to Hedda’s yield in the play’s climax, whereas Brack seedily enacted his own power and sexual desire over Hedda. The two fantastically used silence to their advantage, using subtle gestures and facial expressions to express characters’ slow realisations of the plot’s unravelling. I felt that it was in scenes with these two where Travis’s depiction of George most shined too, and special note should be paid to the costuming of the three men. Although each was in a suit, small details like George’s unbuttoned shirt, Brack’s buttoned-up blazer, and Ejlert’s bowtie created subtly considered nuances within each man’s masculinity, status, and power.
Whilst the entire cast had genuinely fantastic moments, the show’s undeniable standout was Grace Graham as Hedda. Hedda Gabler is an incredibly emotionally taxing role, capable of exhausting any actor’s physical and emotional reserves, remaining on stage for nearly the entirety of the play, but Graham performed this beautifully. Her stage presence was second-to-none, continuously commanding audience members’ eyes, and she made wonderful, subtle choices, especially in the scenes where she acted as an onlooker between others’ conversations. Her projection and changing inflections of tone throughout were incredible.
My only real criticism of the piece would lay in occasional directorial decisions which seemed to want to draw humour from the text in inappropriate moments. For instance, despite being acutely concerned with her own autonomy, and fuelled by fear of scandal, Graham’s Hedda leant in for a kiss with Brack, which was comedically interrupted by her husband’s entrance, despite Hedda’s saying ‘I don’t intend to be unfaithful’ in just the next scene. Whilst I understand the desire to inject moments of humour in a text as darkly tragic as Hedda Gabler, this felt like a slightly crude attempt at comedy, which unfortunately removed a layer of Hedda’s integrity.
Overall, however, this was a piece clearly nurtured by a talented cast and crew, with each actor having many moments where they were fantastic to watch. The play fully realised notions of female entrapment, blackmail, and scandal in its tragic dénouement, and this team fully deserved their standing ovation and rapturous applause.
By Sarah Kelly
Photo Credits: Hild Bede Theatre