Despite the play’s renown, the lead protagonist in Henrik Ibsen’s famous play has always been far more intriguing than the play itself. Hedda Gabler, a woman bristling with life but confined by her 19th century patriarchal world, is the Freudian death drive incarnate - a destructive, heartbreaking figure every bit as complex and as melancholy as Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The play’s remaining characters, however, are far less imaginatively drawn. They are mere ‘types’, pawns to be moved around the stage. Nevertheless, they can be energised, made more complex, or at the very least made much more ‘fun’. Whether it’s down to Mark O’Rowe’s script or Annabelle Comyn’s direction, that possibility is never developed here and the play suffers for it.
It should be noted, Catherine Walker’s performance as Hedda is breathtaking and beautiful, the actor poised always between nervous grimaces and bitchy composure, vulnerability and viciousness. But her foils - her husband Tesman (Peter Gaynor ), love rival Thea (Kate Stanley Brennan), and old flame Lovborg (Keith McErlean) - are all pitched far too glibly.
This is, among other things, a play about an excess of feeling, and how our exposure to feeling can buckle us. Yet all of these others, even the enlightened Thea and Lovborg, are too excessively ‘buttoned up’, their own irrepressible vitality glimpsed all too scantily. Hedda may try to manipulate them as pawns. The play itself seems to regard them as pawns. But they are not pawns. They demand more colour.
Fortunately, Declan Conlan’s insidious schemer Judge Brack is splendid, the actor’s slow, cautious grace gently capturing the character’s ugly slyness. Moreover, the cut and thrust of O’Rowe’s dialogue is also very enjoyable. Alongside Walker’s wonderful performance, and an impressive sound and visual design, the production thus has much to savour.