One of the quandaries facing contemporary adaptations of classics is the risk of the story being lost in a translation, which can isolate the work from the original culture and text. Melissa Bubnic’s reimagining of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (which had its première in Munich in 1891) runs no such risk. Directed by Paige Rattray, Hedda removes Ibsen’s characters from nineteenth-century Norway and the world of academia and situates them in present-day Gold Coast on the deck of a ‘McMansion’. Although Hedda retains the original characters’ names, the setting is about as far away from Ibsen as you can imagine.
Hedda is the second play to be staged at the newly refurbished Bille Brown Theatre; I reviewed the first, Nearer the Gods, for ABR. Designer David Fleischer has set up the corner stage with two towering white walls, sparse white furniture, glass doors leading to a concealed inside space, and a barricade between the deck and an imaginary pool – features that are typical of a vapid Surfers Paradise mansion. Lighting designer Emma Valente bathes the white space in varying shades of day and night; the production ends with an impressive white-out effect. Along with Fleischer’s design, and the intermittent thumping of an electronic soundtrack from sound designer Kelly Ryall, these elements highlight the artifice of the space and the nature of the occupants within it.
Bubnic’s depiction of the Gold Coast aesthetic is by no means sympathetic, and plays into its reputation for crime, debauchery, and the tastelessness of the middle-class bogan. While the portrayal tends to rely on a (perhaps undeserved) stereotype, it captures the tension between social classes that Hedda Gabler is known for, to darkly comedic effect. Much of the comedy derives from the social rivalry between Hedda (raised by a wealthy Melbourne family) and the Gold Coast ‘family’ of the Tesmans – new money made from meth-dealers and dubious real estate agents. But the contrast between Hedda and the Tesmans is not just played for a laugh at the expense of Queenslanders. The difference in décor, attire (Hedda always wears black, the others varying shades of colour), and even idle conversation is, for Hedda, the way in which she stakes her identity and authority within the family. As the consequences of her manipulative exploits unfold, Hedda revels in them, dominating the physical space around her as the stakes rise.
One of the most alluring aspects of Hedda is the talented seven-strong cast, all of whom give layered performances. Almost immediately, Andrea Moor and Helen O’Leary (as Julia Tesman and Berta, respectively) had the audience in hysterics, playing the bogan aunts of Hedda’s new husband (and meth-dealer) George Tesman (Jason Klarwein). In a play where nearly everyone is a kind of monster, some of the tenderer and funnier moments were shared between aunt and nephew (Moor and Klarwein). But their amusing relationship does not detract from the impact of Klarwein’s portrayal of a proud, violent man. Jimi Bani (Ejlert Lövborg) moves effortlessly between the comic, the absurd, the deranged. Bridie Carter (Thea Elvsted) brings a much-needed sweetness and sympathy to the ‘family’, and plays the optimistic Thea with genuine and engaging passion, even in the face of graphic violence and self-destruction. Joss McWilliam is menacing but hilarious as the corrupt Brack. His scenes with Cormack are some of the funniest, and the most tense.
Danielle Cormack as Hedda Gabler was always going to be the stand-out. An assured television actor (Rake, Wentworth), she is a natural fit for an iconic role such as Hedda Gabler. Cormack – mesmerising and commanding – reveals the complexity of her character through her dynamic expressions and physicality; at times she stalks around the stage as if on a cat-walk. Cormack and McWilliam in particular have a flawless way of shifting between intimidating and humorous moments in order to conceal their motives. Hedda can be considered a dark comedy, but both actors enact their more playful moments with an undercurrent of danger and menace. This renders the more graphic scenes all the more effective.
Hedda may have a polarising effect on audiences, particularly among those expecting something closer to Ibsen’s text. Some of the depictions of violence were so explicit they evoked audible revulsion from audience members. For me, these depictions were not a case of violence for the sake of violence. The impact of a powerful, manipulative woman at the centre of a morally ambiguous world fuelled by male violence was as refreshing as it was disturbing.
Hedda is being performed at the Bille Brown Theatre by Queensland Theatre Company from 10 November to 8 December 2018. Performance attended: November 15.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Copyright Agency's Cultural Fund and the ABR Patrons.
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