Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler – a tale of academics, alcoholism, and frustration – is a perfect fit for Oxford in Juliano Zaffiono and Krisztina Rakoczy’s production. General Gabler is now an ambassador; George Tessman is George Desmond; and there’s the obligatory joke at the expense of Cambridge, but the timelessness of the tale remains. The eponymous heroine (played by Johanna Schnurr) finds herself married to George Desmond (Charlie MacVicar), an Oxford academic and “specialist” in fields which bore her incessantly. Having returned home from a terrible honeymoon, the Desmonds’ lives are disturbed by news from Thea Ellis (Holly Armstrong), one of George’s old flames: Elliot Loevburg (Felix Lehane), a brilliant but debauched author, George’s rival, and Hedda’s one-time lover, is back in town. To complicate matters further, Judge Brackus (Bruno Delmonte) – Hedda’s former chaperone – reveals his interest in her, offering a ménage a trois to let her escape from the crushing boredom of her marriage. As the play progresses, Hedda grows increasingly destructive in her quest for beauty, meaning and excitement, destroying Loevburg’s prophetic manuscript and causing his death – an act which unwittingly puts herself in Brackus’ hands, prompting her own suicide.
Johanna Schnurr’s Hedda has a wide gambit of emotions, and there are genuinely funny moments as she rules her husband in a decided Hyacinth Bucket fashion. By the same token, Schnurr creates a hopelessly flawed character, oscillating between ruthless resolve and neurotic terror. Hedda can destroy but cannot create; she is terrified of the responsibility of her pregnancy; she ends up dying alone, her triumph over Thea squandered by the pathetic circumstances of Loevburg’s demise and George and Thea’s collaboration and renewed friendship. She is a psychopath, but one who we can come to pity: it is clear that she is unable to love and feel intimacy rather than choosing not to show emotions. Her husband, the dull, bumbling academic, is given a wonderfully Worster-esque spin by Charlie MacVicar. He delivers Tessman’s idiosyncratic ehs and whats perfectly, giving the character a very British sensibility whilst capturing the varied sentiments which create a complex academic caricature – a man at once engrossed in his special field of study, deeply in love with his wife, and extremely jealous of Loevburg’s sudden success.
Alongside the Desmonds, the rest of the cast help give the play its stark, realist atmosphere. Bruno Delmonte’s Judge brings a frisson of sexual tension as he jibes with Hedda about the old days, asserting himself as a mature, respectable friend and lover – only to reveal that he plays the game of manipulation far better than his former ward, entrapping her at the last. The predatory rapacity of an authority figure seems particularly pertinent in the troubled times. In contrast, Felix Lehane’s Loevburg is more soft-spoken than the big screen interpretation. Here he is a figure whose descent into darkness and ignominious death is almost as moving as that of Thea Ellis’ suffering (Holly Armstrong). Trapped in a loveless marriage, her friendship and work with Elliot allow both of them to find some solace, until Hedda insidiously and gleefully destroys them. Poppy Willis Rushforth’s Aunt Julia and Krisztina Rakoczy’s Bertie round out the cast, their roles helping to immerse us in the world of ‘genteel poverty’ in which Hedda finds herself stranded. All in all, a fabulously well executed production of a play which continues to haunt over a century after it was written.