Hedda Gabler is often held up as ‘the female Hamlet’. In a tradition that too easily resembles a desert in terms of female leading roles, the comparison is not thoughtless. In Hedda, not only is the actor offered a central, title-wielding role, but also one riddled with conflicts, pressures and a story-arch to rival the Dane’s (despite being set not on castle battlements but in a well-furnished drawing room).
Hedda is not an easy heroine. At the time of writing, Ibsen created a truly shocking character; even now the play is able to cause a stir. Is Hedda a proto-feminist, who resists a masculine-dominated social scene, and destroys her domestic cage? Or is she a dark force, a manipulator, with no sense of morals or human sympathy? After 120 years, the debate persists. Hedda, like Hamlet, is marked by complication.
The Lyceum’s production – director Amanda Gaughan’s debut at the theatre – plays on Hedda’s enigma. It does well to follow Ibsen in this; the strength of the play lies in the lack of clear motivations. It is compelling precisely because Hedda cannot be fully explained. She is both cruelly snobbish – scorning her husband and his aspiring bourgeois “Aunt Juju” behind a barely-there veil of manners – and vulnerable. The only thing crystal clear about Hedda’s tragedy is that it stems from her intelligence, and from frustration at that intelligence being subsumed by the conventions imposed on her gender. As is made clear by her husband, his aunt and the manipulative Judge Brack – played skilfully by Benny Young – Hedda is a prize for her beauty, her breeding abilities and her sexual allure.
It is a remarkable play. On the Lyceum stage it is itself alluring. Yet frequently some of the actors seem all-too-aware of the roles they are attempting to play. At times the poignancy and power of the piece is lost behind apparently empty pronouncements. However, even if at times the production strikes as overly ‘staged’, it remains one of the most enthralling pieces of drama to take to the boards.