*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(Some spoilers, but as the play was written in 1890, it should be
'Hedda Gabler' is one of my all-time favourite plays, but I had never seen this version. I recently caught up with it on a secondhand VHS tape. It preserves, or rather, embalms, in a golden glow like Norwegian amber, Trevor Nunn's RSC production, which starred Glenda Jackson. I found it disappointing in comparison with Deborah Warner's 1993 production, with Fiona Shaw.
'Hedda' has beautiful photography (those amber sunsets!), settings, and costumes, but somehow lacks vitality. Some aspects of the acting have dated: some of the delivery seems a bit too arch at times, too self-conscious of being 'classic drama'. Yes, Ibsen was a 19C dramatist, and, of course, the script is a translation, but he aspired to naturalism: in this production I was conscious that I was watching a play, rather than eavesdropping on the lives of real, living people. The incidental music is overly 'romantic', especially when it accompanies the arrival of Ejlert Løvborg, silhouetted against the sunset. I do not think the film intended to satirise Hedda and Thea's romantic illusions about him at this point, but it was very hard to take him seriously after such an entrance. I understand why the designers, wishing to convey Hedda's domestic oppression, depicted the villa as over-cluttered and ornately decorated. Unfortunately, it made scenes too 'busy' visually: it was too easy for the eye to wander from the actors and get lost among various fascinating bits of Victorian bric-à-brac and furniture. Also, the Tesmans have only recently moved in; this house looked far too 'lived in'.
Any production of 'Hedda Gabler' depends heavily on its lead actress. Despite her Oscar nomination, Glenda Jackson did not completely convince me as Hedda. The character can be infuriating, but she is also heartbreaking, like Eustacia Vye in Hardy's 'Return of the Native'. Glenda, fine actress though she is, simply did not move me. Nunn's production had clearly decided to adopt the hard, brittle "ice-queen" interpretation of Hedda; as a result, I did not sense her underlying unhappiness and desperation, which Fiona Shaw conveyed so effectively. Poised and assured, this Hedda did not strike me as a woman falling towards suicide: I would have expected someone of her mettle to shoot the blackmailing Judge Brack (Timothy West), not herself, and run off with Thea, along the lines of 'Thelma & Louise' or (more successfully) Corky and Violet in 'Bound'! Indeed, the most intriguing aspect of her performance was when she reminds Thea Elvsted (Jennie Linden) of her schoolgirl threat to burn her hair off - leaning forward as if to kiss her, but drawing back at the last moment, more than once. This slightly Sapphic note suits Hedda: she is a General's daughter, motherless; she rides and shoots, but has never mastered all 19C conventions of domesticated 'femininity'; she wants to hear about men's adventures; she does not want to be a mother. One of Ibsen's great insights in 'The Doll's House' (1879), as well as in this play, is that society's definition of 'femininity' is largely a cultural construct - learned behaviour, not innate or 'natural' to every woman. Hedda has missed some of the lessons, but is still expected to fit the template; at the same time, she cannot break free of it. I have often thought that she and Thea would have fared better together, without the hopeless men!
Patrick Stewart was dashing as Løvborg, although it was hard to imagine him ever having been drunken and dissolute: he lacked loucheness. This was not his fault as an actor (I have seen him in a range of roles), more a reflection of the reined-in nature of this production - competent but playing it safe and 'classic'. Neither he nor Timothy West's Brack exuded the necessary sexual danger. The low-key approach best suited the 'nice' characters: Jennie Linden's Thea, Constance Chapman's Aunt Juliane, and Pam St Clement's awkward, well-meaning Berte.
The truly outstanding performance in the film was that of Peter Eyre, as Jørgen Tesman (here called George). I would go so far as to say that his was the definitive filmed portrayal of the character. He was perfect: every inch the pedantic, eager PhD scholar brought up by maiden aunts. I felt I knew him: I have lived in halls of residence with postgrads just like him. Tesman is good-natured enough, a likable geek - but he really should never have married, and certainly not a bride like General Gabler's daughter!
I would like to see this film released on DVD, to capture the fine detail of the costumes and settings, but I recommend the 1993 BBC production, directed by Deborah Warner, for a more profound portrayal of Hedda herself.
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