BATS Theatre
April 15-May 2 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

WILD DUCK Productions, under the direction of David Lawrence, have updated and revised Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler for their production at BATS to place the characters in current day Wellington. As part of this re-visioning Hedda becomes a bored and somewhat unstable housewife with strong colonial roots – and a pair of pistols to match. The essentials of Ibsen’s original are all there – the recent marriage of Hedda to a kind but boring and naive intellectual (Jörgen/George Tesman), interrupted by the appearance of her mousy school acquaintance, Thea Elvsted who has been assisting Eljert (Eliot) Løvberg, Hedda’s former love and Jorgen’s, rival with the follow up to his acclaimed book. George’s interfering but well-meaning Aunt Julia is present (although changed to his sister) and so is Max Brack, the slippery lawyer who lives next door (a judge in the original).

Some aspects of the update are successful and thought provoking – for example, casting George and Julia Tesman with Samoan actors (Asalemo Tofete and Tupe Lualua) and placing significant emphasis on their family relationship renders Hedda even more of an outsider. Max Brack is clearly played as a flamboyant homosexual by Salesi Le’ota, and lines such as “I like to enter by the back door” have plenty of comic effect as a result. It’s also effective to the hyper-aware paranoia inherent in Løvberg’s character to make him obsessed with avoiding modern technology – and this obviously serves the crucial point in the plot too (that there is only one hand written copy of his novel). Michael Ness is excellent as Løvberg – he becomes by far the most interesting character on the stage as his personal demons overcome him.

This is all fine and good if you are familiar with the play in its original form. However, for those that are not I could not help but wonder if they would be a little lost and confused by this production. For what has been lost in my opinion is Hedda as a complicated and enthralling central figure. Other than in the struggle with her husband’s culture, I found that the update had little effect on Hedda’s character, and if anything made her actions seem even more extreme and unfathomable. The character seemed to lose much of her strength and desperation and become more bored and spoilt. This was not assisted by Clare Kerrison’s performance in the title role – on opening night she looked like she was channelling The Bold and the Beautiful in some of her over-stated reactions.

Although there were moments I enjoyed in this adaptation, and the set design (by Penny Angrick) and lighting design (by Ulli Briese) are undeniably excellent, the production did not work for me as a whole. I am a huge fan of Lawrence’s approach to classic texts usually, and I wondered if he had been brought on board later in the piece, as the play lacked the usual creative inventiveness I associate with his productions. Or perhaps that is just a general result of the devising process? Several members of the cast also seem under-rehearsed, especially in later scenes and lines were dropped more than once. I expect this will improve throughout the season. For a play that has proved itself ripe for adaptation in the past (just google Hedda Gabler and you will see what I mean), this duck just didn’t fly for me.