Esther McPherson

As many a Norwegian literature student will tell you, Henrik Ibsen’s plays are full of tropes. When characters start a line, or when they go offstage with a loaded gun to play gramophone music, we know exactly what is going to happen. This cast, directed with care by Erika Price, Chloe Lansley and Jonathan Iceton, manage the predictability that these tropes bring with a certain grace; the audience are aware that the actors are in control of the obvious, but we are also left open to the beauty of interpreting for ourselves, and the wonderful feeling that we have worked something out on our own.

"Hedda Gabler’ is a play about the inevitable power of men and the inevitable powerlessness of women"

Inge Vera-Lipsius, playing Hedda, takes control of this show. She enters silhouetted behind a curtain, the first moment where Ash Pratt-Jarvis’s cleverly-designed three-layer set comes into its own. (The other particularly poignant use of these layers happens when there are actors in both the front and back rooms; the stakes of the foreground conversation are raised because we are constantly reminded, visually, of the fear that those in the back might be able to hear.) She rises tall above the others in this opening scene, commanding and yet intricately proper in every interaction.

Vera-Lipsius revels in the short words, the ‘oh’s and ‘ah well’s which are also the territory of her arguments with Tesman (William Batty). The complexities of her character are condensed into the smallness of her words here, and yet very much not condensed as they spill out in constant contradictions and reversals in the play. When Ruth Wilson played Hedda Gabbler in the 2017 National Theatre production of Henrik Ibsen’s play, she said of her character: “you can’t contain her or put her in a box. That’s unusual for a female character – more often you know what the angle is from the start.” Vera-Lipsius’s Hedda is certainly undefinable: does she create havoc to cure her boredom? Is she so enthralled by the possibility of beauty that she struggles to make her own life, or that of others, fit into this romantic image? Does she have a deviant mind that means she cannot stop herself making plans and playing with other people’s lives?

There was probably one moment in the whole show when Vera-Lipsius dropped out of her character (in her first interaction with Mrs Elvsted): otherwise, her acting was characterised by a ruthless consistency and a tightness of expression. It is Vera-Lipsius, I felt, who redeems the play’s slower moments, but also her interactions with Kay Benson as Mrs Elvsted. Benson gives a nuanced, subtle and clearly experienced performance as she enacts the dynamic of younger schoolgirl terrified and yet enthralled by the older girl she has met outside the school grounds. Benson and Vera-Lipsius work naturally and confidently together, and their scenes are where the play really begins to find its rhythm.

Jesper Erikkson as Judge Brack deserves his own paragraph, too. From his first entrance, Erikkson is sure who his character is. Brack has an effect on the others in the room, as their body language changes in the face of his charisma, symbolic positioning and only lightly-veiled innuendos. In the bigger chunks of speech, Erikkson has a tendency to sound as if he is reading out his script, and he would benefit from taking a moment to pause, if just for a moment, in between his own lines, and to try not to keep thinking about the next line as he says the one before. This said, his command of verbal rhythms and pace in his most important lines is fantastic: especially effective is the way in which he spaces out his words in particularly emphatic or manipulative moments. Erikkson’s performance adds a wonderful energy to the show, and his confidence in his interpretation of character is something to be channelled by every actor.

In general, this play gets better as it goes on. Maybe this is a result of Ibsen’s realism and the need to set the scene and lay out character clues in the first half so that the events of the second are realistic and understandable. Either way, the liveliest scenes and most powerful moments, both aesthetically and dramatically, come in the second half. Music and light come into their own at this point: the music of the play is cleverly matched tempo and tone with the scene it accompanies; the lights in this play simply dim and brighten when the window is opened or closed or in moments of quietness or verbal darkness, as all of the audience’s senses are manipulated at once. I won’t spoil this play for you if you haven’t already read it, but what I will say is get ready for the scene where Hedda crouches by the fire: all of the play’s power, in my opinion, comes together in this sequence.


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‘Hedda Gabler’ is a play about the inevitable power of men and the inevitable powerlessness of women. Hedda does not conform to either model of the woman presented by men – she is not a mother or a whore; in this play she is neither the ideal maternal figure, nor does she transgress sexually. Price, Lansley and Iceton do an admirable job of managing an always-difficult dynamic as they tackle Ibsen’s masterpiece: the fact that this play was once shocking to audiences in its portrayal of the feminine, but is no longer. This production is graceful, nuanced and provoking, and it is carried out by actors who are fantastically certain and consistent in their character performances.

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