Perhaps the first thing one notices about Peripeteia Productions’ Hedda is its name: Hedda, not Hedda Gabler. Ibsen deliberately called the play Hedda Gabler to illustrate that Hedda is more her father’s daughter than her husband’s wife, and this friction is evident throughout the play in the frequent disputes over her name. Is she Hedda Gabler or Hedda Tesman? The emptiness of Hedda’s marriage contrasts with the richness of her memories of her father, and this discord is only heightened by the ongoing tension about money, reaching its peak when Eli (Ibsen’s Eilert) accuses Hedda of marrying someone just like her father.
Ibsen’s notion, however, is repugnant to many modern viewers, and by giving her adaptation the title Hedda, Lucy Kirkwood seems to be trying to remove Hedda from these patriarchal identities and to show that she is her own woman. And so, the audience watches as Hedda tries to gain power over the other characters, manipulating Eli and Thea, and engaging in a fascinating power-play with Brack, to ultimately control the uncontrollable. Hedda’s personal identity becomes more important in a modern-day adaptation, yet one of the problems with this is that a modern Hedda, unlike her nineteenth-century counterpart, need not be trapped by marriage.
Whilst the production somewhat sidesteps this issue, the intensity of the performance makes up for the oversight. What works particularly well in this production is the way that this entrapment is illustrated by Hedda never leaving the apartment, instead reacting to the other characters who come and go, and in many ways controlling their movements. Although the play is a part of the Oxford Playhouse’s VOTE season, celebrating one hundred years of female suffrage, Hedda fails to live up fully to its expectations as a feminist adaptation, as was perhaps always inevitable. For Hedda’s problem seems to be both everything and nothing, and there doesn’t seem to be a sustained attempt to make Hedda’s struggle the struggle of woman.
What this adaptation does do extremely well, however, is make the play relatable on a different level. Not only is this Hedda set in modern-day London, with George, Eli, and Hedda’s father brilliantly reimagined as Oxford academics, but it also depicts all six characters, and not just Hedda, searching for something meaningful in their lives. It shows their various different ways of trying to find this meaning, and how they cope without it. The production is a stylish one, with some particularly thoughtful adaptations, such as Eli’s manuscript taking the form of a memory stick that he wears around his neck. The scenery itself consists of the stripped-back stage typical of student productions, but which nonetheless captured the right aesthetic tone, and allowed for the entrances and exits of Brack, which so wonderfully matched the mischief and menace of his character.
Although the neon lighting, often used in such modern-day adaptations, sometimes lacked the subtlety of the performance it accompanied, the use of lighting to show the time of day worked well. Overall, Hedda is a compelling production, which manages to create an intense performance in a huge space. The greatest testament to this has to be the long scenes, which maintain their tension and the audience’s engagement with so little action. Hedda may not be the modern woman, whatever that is, but Hedda is certainly a play for the modern world.