Is Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler a female Samson, a feminist heroine who pulls down the gilded prison of late 19th-century bourgeois marriage? Or is she a decadent nihilist, a dark force of nature who would have been more at home in the cabaret clubs of 1920s Berlin than the genteel suburbs of a Scandinavian university town? So the debate has tended to run ever since the play premiered (to negative reviews) in Munich in 1891.
However, as director Amanda Gaughan’s fine production (her debut outing at the Lyceum) suggests, the aristocratic young woman who is, arguably, Ibsen’s greatest character is not reducible to a mere archetype. Rather, as we find in Nicola Daley’s extraordinary performance, Hedda is one of the most enigmatic, tragic figures in world theatre, as powerful a character as Medea or Antigone, yet, compellingly, less certain in her motivations.
Arch, needle sharp, unashamedly snobbish, Daley’s Hedda smiles with barely disguised contempt for her husband, the dull, hapless academic Tesman, and his “Aunt Juju”, who is the very personification of stultifying, bourgeois life. This is Hedda as a captivating, morally ambiguous rebel without a cause (unless one considers the contorted romanticism of her relationship with the dissolute genius Lövborg to be a cause).
In a performance of great control and nuance, Daley captures the perplexing essence of a character who beguiles everyone around her with her beauty, intelligence and intensity, yet, on account of her sex, lacks the freedom to live as she would choose.
If Daley’s unforgettable performance is, as the play demands, at the anguished heart of the production, there is fine acting across the piece, not least from Benny Young, whose Judge Brack is, in Richard Eyre’s faithful, yet intelligently modern 2005 version, a shamelessly lecherous blackmailer. Jack Tarlton’s initially too brooding Lövborg ultimately comes good on the character’s fatal weakness.
Such a strong presentation deserves better than designer Jean Chan’s uninspired, quasi-realist set, which is dominated by doors with glassless windows which, to the actors’ obvious frustration, fall open when they should not. EJ Boyle’s poignant choreography towers above most of what passes for movement on the stage these days.
An impressive, if not flawless, Hedda Gabler, then, and one which deserves to be remembered for a brilliant and affecting performance in the title role.
Until April 11. For more information, visit: lyceum.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on March 25, 2015
© Mark Brown