You would completely get Hedda Gabler. You’d understand what she’s going through. Hedda is just back from her long honeymoon. She’s unsure that committing to a long-term scenario was the right idea, and starts to freak the fuck out when she feels the cold, creeping tentacle of doubt. Here’s an equation for relationship scholars. Two old boyfriends (Eilert, Brack) + new husband (Jorgen) + timid school friend you used to torture (Thea) + the increasingly intense sensation that you are trapped + mania + absolutely no fucks to give = Hedda Gabler.
The last two parts of the equation are the key to this (character) Hedda Gabler, played in the (sadly brief run of) National Theater of Norway‘s production of Hedda Gabler–just one of many incredible works of theatre at The Kennedy Center’s Nordic Cool festival. Hedda can be acted many ways, but Andrea Hovig (as Hedda) toed the line between passion and quiet hysteria. Hedda remarks at one point that she just wants power over someone, Hovig purred the line with a casual air, with possible unspoken context being, “Is that so much to ask?” That’s not to make light of the performance; Hedda Gabler, the character, is considered one of the most complex and one of the greatest roles to play in theater.
Before beginning the performance, Mattis Nyquist (Jorgen) stood onstage and started a long, impromptu introduction of the actors (this was not part of the play), who had been milling around onstage while the audience found seats. Jarring in comparison to his portrayal of Jorgen, who is less charismatic, more timid and emasculated; it was a strange beginning. The play was delivered completely in Norwegian (with few exceptions) on a screen floating above that dumped out abbreviated English lines. Norwegian gave the story an even more alien and uncomfortable quality, for those who did not speak the language. The text of Hedda Gabler is somewhat stiff, as happens in older plays, but director Peter Oian attempted to use the director’s bellows to stoke a very large fire in the characters’ lines, sometimes slow burning and sometimes blazing. He didn’t make much of an attempt to modernize the play, which dates back to 1891, although occasionally a smartphone appeared from Jorgen’s pocket and rock and roll was played. Mostly, we watched a drama with ice cold emotion when not smoldering from Hedda’s destruction, which reigned supreme.
Jorgen stayed out of the way, by Henrik Isben’s design. In this case, Jorgen was directed to understand his situation, although powerless to do anything, only biting back at Hedda before she successfully ran offstage to kill herself. Jorgen frequently called out a long, helpless “Hedda!” Or occasionally in English he would say to the audience, “Sorry about that, she doesn’t usually do that” in the same style as Nyquist’s opening spiel, which detracted from the play’s seriousness. Hedda offhandedly referenced burning Thea’s hair, something she threatened to do when they were both in school. Hedda’s two former lovers were objects for her pleasure; there is no room for interpretation when she speaks to them in a sultry way, touching them or walking between their legs while they sit. She gives Eilert her gun, telling him to “do it beautifully.” Brack reacts with bolder phrases while Eilert laughs or broods on a clear plastic chair, but what they do doesn’t matter. Hedda delivers every phrase at a similarly high volume. It’s all part of her show.
The action takes place in a single area, from somewhere inside Jorgen & Hedda’s house. This seems appropriate, as the psychological quandary is also an insular one, seething and bubbling up into the cracks between lines and interactions, rather than in actions. There was deliberate unsteadiness in this play, stemming from Hedda’s unhappiness but also from the set, a stage within the stage. A raised platform tilted forward could be (and was) rotated by the actors between scenes during the performance. When actors were “offstage” they were still on stage, watching the other characters, lingering in the spaces around this small, tilted stage with intense silence and gestures indicating reaction. The little stage constantly shifted so that it was tilted toward and away from the audience. A fairly sharp grade to walk on, the little stage gave the impression of being flat when tilted toward the audience. However, turning it between each scene was a reminder it was not flat, balanced, or stable. Five clear plastic chairs (that were awfully loud when thrown around) represented all the furniture in Hedda’s new mansion. Draped and hung around the place were curtains and panels screenprinted with photos at various angles of a grand, golden theater. The metaphor is fairly obvious there. The ceiling was the back wall of the house, so we looked up into this curious, quietly violent life.
Hedda’s best moments were silent ones. Early on, she stares into the audience’s space with headphones on and a gun in the hand hanging beside her. She then shot the moon (a chandelier hanging in the background against a blue backdrop). Midway through, she looked distressed, and there was a series of silent moments where she checked her form in the mirror, tugged at the middle of her dress and finally drove the corner of a chair into her belly. This is how we found out she was pregnant. In the best instance of this silent discomfort and madness, Hedda finds herself alone with Eilert’s singular copy of his unpublished, brilliant book, of which Jorgen is jealous. She is giddy. She knelt with it, took it out, flipped through it, and unable to stop smiling, occasionally bursted out in a squealing giggle, but not a joyous one. She destroys the manuscript. As she says later, she couldn’t bear the thought of Jorgen being upstaged by someone, but the impression is made that she’s grabbed a little power, power unchecked by others around her, power she does not hesitate to wield.
Hedda Gabler is part of the Nordic Cool 2013 at the Kennedy Center, a month-long international festival of theater, dance, music, visual arts, literature, design, cuisine, and film to highlight the diverse cultures of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden as well as the territories of Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Áland Islands.