Ibsen without the highs and lows

Picture of Alice Bonifacio as Hedda Gabler and David Sayers as her former lover Eilert Loevborg

Alice Bonifacio as Hedda Gabler and David Sayers as her former lover Eilert Loevborg. Pictures: George Riddell

Hedda Gabler

Icarus Theatre Collective

The Roses Theatre, Tewksbury


Icarus Theatre Collective, under Producer-Director Max Lewendel, was responsible for touring Frank Wedekind’s landmark 1890s play Spring Awakening last year.

The quality was absolutely first-class: concept, direction, set, acting, characterisation; and the exquisite way they addressed the issue of burgeoning teenage sexual angsts, and their pained consequences, in a manner that was a model of unprudish free expression, restraint, honesty and sensitivity.

Their other 2013 touring staging was in the same vein: Romeo and Juliet, a production that similarly ached: intense passion, well-cast role-sharing, and a handsome, feverish presentation from start to finish.

I wish I had seen Othello, which Icarus toured this Spring. I would have anticipated a like intensity, and the same degree of inspiration. However I did manage to catch their other production right at the end of its tour, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, which started its provincial trail at Uppingham Theatre, Rutland, and has visited Picture of Gary Stoner as Othello and Holly Piper as the dead Desdemona in Max Lewendel's 2014 Icarus touring productionWest Midland venues Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury and Stafford Gatehouse, rounded off by the Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury.

Nothing will stop me asserting this company is one of the best young outfits in English theatre today, giving a platform to some of the ablest prospects setting out on their acting career, or from encouraging you to see them whenever they come anywhere near you.  

Gary Stoner as Othello and Holly Piper as the dead Desdemona in Max Lewendel's 2014 Icarus touring production

But I have to say, this Ibsen seemed to me to fall short in several respects. It was well plotted and often excellently moved, but self-evidently underdirected. The quality of the pacing was very mixed, and palpably detrimental. The acting hit the target often, but less often than one would have hoped.

Theo Holloway is credited for music and sound. The music had little feel for period or moment or location. Occasionally spooky (some nice contrabassoon, or so it seemed) in a banal, unfocused kind of way, it added virtually nothing and sometimes tangibly detracted. Michael Meyer’s famously proficient translation seemed, for all his having been ‘the definitive translator of ten or more Ibsen and some eight-plus Strindberg’, to lack a real feeling for cadence.

A vibrant young company like this deserved and needed something more vigorous. The desultory set, by Christopher Hone who also designed their Othello, struck me as verging on a disaster, though it just about served, in the way you might accept an amateurish, essentially two-dimensional set in amateur drama. One bit that worked particularly well was the burning of the (supposedly only copy of) Loevborg’s book by Hedda. Seen from the front, the glow was highly effective; unfortunately from the side you could see underneath the platform, which spoilt the effect. A bit inept.

Ilona Kahn’s costumes were rather good: you really could imagine the (as we later learn) dangerously randy, perverse, even perverted Judge Brack (Julian Pindar) or confused Thea Elvstead (Holly Piper) had stepped straight out of a late 19th century Danish or Norwegian painting.

In some ways it was David Martin’s Juergen (George) Tesman, Hedda’s haplessly  intellectual, family-oriented, naively loyal husband - in Othello Martin played Iago, a character as far removed as it would be possible to be - who held this production together.

Tesman is at the least consistent: wielding a clay pipe, faffing over old fashioned Picture of Helen Bonifacio as Hedda Gabler holding the General's pistolcourtesies, poring over family documents, deliciously boring with his lightly lilting  put-on voice, but in the end a total turn-off for his emotionally explosive, sexually-charged young wife (Alice Bonifacio). You can see (‘imagine having to spend every month of one’s life with one person’) why she is headed for suicide even at the start, even without her appalling machinations: how else can it end?

Cast as Ford in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives for Illyria Open-Air Theatre, that is more or less how Martin plays George here: a fond, bumbling dolt. It works well, and I found his moves and little half gestures always interesting. A prat, but a patently noble one whose academic pursuits might actually better the world.

The general's pistol. Helen Bonifacio as Hedda Gabler.

Hedda, the famous general’s spoilt daughter who behaves with military ruthlessness (‘more her father’s daughter than her husband’s wife’, as the playwright suggested), is onstage virtually throughout, and it was latterly that Bonifacio seemed to acquire stature and detail: a flick of the head, a sudden freeze, a smirk, a slight sidle, or a rather smug striding across the stage. Earlier, less so. She is deliberately positioned – sometimes almost stuck - stage right by Lewendel, and brings to Mrs. Tesman/Gabler an aptly dangerous, Medea-like quality, never more so than when her look assumes a kind of frozen, death’s-head quality.

Perhaps it is she, in her mainly pink costume (but towards the end, fabulously transformed to blue by Kahn), who suffers the most from the amateurish, indoor orangery-look of Hone’s bald, tricolour set (a clanky platform – if theirs -  should have been cured early in the tour, surely).

It is somehow difficult to take anyone seriously in the context, and Christopher Withers’ lighting, though well focused on the three main acting areas, could do little to redeem it.

The intrusions work rather better. Not so much Deborah Klayman as Tesman’s nurturing aunt Julia/Julie, who needs much more work to appear believably old (hopefully she fared better as Emilia to Holly Piper’s Desdemona); or indeed Pindar’s Brack, a character well enunciated but still something of a schoolboy reading, strengthening later as he reveals his amoral side, but scarcely convincing early on (he doubled the role with Gary Stoner, Icarus’s Othello, who may have showed more force).

But Piper’s Thea Elvstead (Elvsted) struck me as a reading laden with strengths, touching on depth. She moved better, produced a believably mixed-up kid of a woman, and held one every time she bewitchingly spoke. Yet the best find was David Sayers as Eilert Loevborg, the former love interest Picture of Bonifacio as Hedda  and David Martin as her husband George TesmanHedda, with ghastly pinpoint precision, drives to needless suicide.

Bonifacio, whose stage left exits (bar the last) always added something sinister, produces her best when dealing with Eilert; and Sayers his, when desperately trying to win back Hedda. He seemed almost head and shoulders above the others; even while ridiculously sentimental and overborne, he lent a maturity frankly lacking elsewhere.

Bonifacio as Hedda  and David Martin as her husband George Tesman

One of the things that most rang out in this staging was how young all Ibsen’s characters felt – little more than those in Spring Awakening, written at exactly the time Ibsen’s play was premiered at Munich’s Residenztheater. It was as if Hedda was, perhaps 16, George maybe a 19 or 20 year old who matriculated and graduated early and is already on a postdoctorate, the lawyer just a youngster with an eye on the main chance, Eilert a foolish but talented, Byronesque, novel-penning student. It’s clearly not so; but the play didn’t feel like a masterpiece by a 62/63 year old master, and the plot’s hyperbole and the expressionistic panache of the characters didn’t seem a patch on, say, Chekhov, or Turgenev, or even Gogol.

My most serious complaint, then, was that this undertaking made Hedda Gabler seem, at the worst, trite. There was little undertow; to the credit of all, one could sense petulance and manipulation, smugness and innocent stumblings, but none of those extra subterranean rumblings that are needed to make Ibsen great. Even the final shot was – well, bathetic. Imagine All My Sons ending like flatly.

It was evident, even, in the Servant/Butler character of Kaiden DuBois, an actor just three years into the trade who positively scored, an advert equally for aching teen heterosexual yearning and blossoming gay innocence, as last year’s Romeo and as little Hans in Spring Awakening.

Proffering umbrellas or used as a clothes horse himself, the butler was ubiquitous in this play. But there was no design to his moving, no extra structuring, not much more than the odd knowing look or suppressed sigh; a school play showing. Formerly Lockwood in LCT’s The History Boys - but surely a Dakin in the making - he could have been so much more.

And so he doubtless was from time to time, for though merely an Ensemble player in Othello, DuBois is listed as Hedda Gabler’s male understudy, which means he may have needed the diversity to play desperate Eilert or fond husband Jürgen. I’d have been glad to see him as either; and my hunch is he could have stood in for Hedda pretty well too. Hedda Gabler ends its run at the Yvonne Arnold Theatre in Guilford on 08-05-14.

Roderic Dunnett



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