Review by Thomas Gregory
Modern theatre can’t let go of “the classics”; Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Ibsen can be found on stages around the world every year. Companies big and small want to take advantage of public-domain texts with name appeal. But they need something new. So they rely on “the classics” of innovation: “Gender-bending”, “modernised settings”, and “new perspectives”. The behemoth that is Bell Shakespeare survives on the back of getting schoolchildren to see mediocre productions by adding Emojis and Adele.
But some plays need more than gimmicks to suit today.
Hedda Gabler is a character who has long ago broken free from the bonds of her play to become a form of mythology. Like Lady Macbeth, Hedda is one of the most sought-after roles for women treading the boards and is often held up as some form of a feminist icon.
However, Hedda is 131 years old. It is difficult for a modern audience to empathise with a beautiful, wealthy young woman who manipulates an alcoholic into killing himself. And Ibsen quite openly distanced himself from the suffragette movement that so adored his character.
Paper Mouth Theatre describes itself as “an emerging theatre company creating work in response to contemporary myths and rituals”. When they chose to approach the mythology of Hedda Gabler, it did so respecting her position in theatrical history. Their play is as much a celebration of Hedda as it is a critique of theatrical adaptation and our attempts to keep our heroes. This production was done as a co-production with Frenetic Theatre.
Hedda GablerGablerGabler follows three performers (Caithlin O'Loghlen, Sarah-Jayde Tracey, and Emma Jevons) as they fight to play the role of Hedda. Sometimes, that fight is quite literal, with two of them wrestling to be the one to play the next scene. Because, yes, each new scene comes with a new competition to see who gets to play the “heroine” of the play. These competitions include feats of strength, tossing an egg, and throwing rolled-up pages of the play into a basket. I will be honest. I was, at first, sceptical as to whether these competitions were “rigged”, as so many shows with “random” elements are. By the end, I could not see how that would even be possible.
Between scenes from the play, and the games to see who takes what role, there are perfectly-crafted original pieces that include a “piece of fan fiction” and a “psychoanalysis of the character”. While challenging the concept of adaptation and interpretation, these scenes are also chock full of comedy moments. With source material dealing with manipulation and suicide and a deconstruction that challenges the concept of “diagnosing fictional characters”, few audience members would expect to laugh so often.
The play’s title might suggest you need to be a fan of Ibsen, or have at least seen the original play, to enjoy this deconstruction of it. This is not the case. By carefully choosing what scenes to portray, and carefully crafting context into the transitional moments, Paper Mouth have ensured that the audience is never lost - even when the actors change roles.
If each performer competes for the role of Hedda in each scene, each performer needs to know all the roles. O'Loghlen, Tracey and Jevons have learned not only each and every role in this play but have found a unique way of approaching them. Tracey’s Hedda is not O'Loghlen’s, and if you have the pleasure of seeing Jevons as Eilert, you will be in for a treat. This is all to say that the creators/performers of this play are insanely talented. From fully-fleshed portrayals of Ibsen’s characters to the playful banter when “competing’, there is so very little to fault.
Mary Angley, the fourth creator and director of the production, has discovered ways to block the play that evokes the past so that we may question it. Ibsen’s original work is one of so little action, but this is a dynamic piece that is full of movement until the very last seconds.
The set for Hedda GablerGablerGabler is deceptively raw and has given the performers everything they need to shine. The lounge and seat that makes the set are appropriately “posh” for Ibsen and are placed on a rough canvas cloth that brings to mind art in progress. While this sheet has a practical purpose, the message of its aesthetics is not lost. Behind this “set”, two tables are piled with props that will turn an otherwise neat presentation into chaos by the end of the night.
The lighting of the Courthouse by Max Woods is a work of art in that it isn’t noticed until the final scenes; one cannot emphasise enough how enjoyable it is to never have to be bothered by shadows in a venue that often struggles with such a problem.
Paper Mouth Theatre Company has torn apart Ibsen and left us with remains that leave us questioning. What should we think of Hedda Gabler when we look at her today? How acceptable are modern adaptations of classic plays? And how do you get tomato juice stains off the walls of a heritage-listed building? As a deconstruction of theatre for experts and amateurs alike, this is a show to see.