Review: Hedda Gabler (adapted) by Palindrome Theatre (2010-2013)
by Michael Meigs

Hedda Gabler puzzled and annoyed audiences across Europe when it was first staged in 1890 and 1891 -- pretty much the same reaction Ibsen had elicited with most of his later plays.  He was 61 when he wrote this one, exasperated with the bourgeois public that went to the theatre and purchased copies of his plays.


The last lines of the play are spoken by Judge Brack, that worldly sybarite who took Hedda's husband George and her would-be lover off to an all-night stag party, then comfortably assured Hedda he was looking forward to a cozy triangle, with her at the apex.  In the crashing finale after Hedda kills herself with a pistol shot to the head, Brack expostulates, "But good God!  People don't do such things!"


If that's a spoiler for you, accept my apologies.  The secret has been out for a long time, however, and the real question of this play is not whether Hedda is going to use that pistol, but why she's going to do it.  The first audiences for the work, in Berlin, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Cristiana, the capital of Norway, had stronger reactions than Judge Brack.


Attitudes changed gradually, however.  Hedda, along with Nora from A Doll's House, were eventually viewed with more sympathy, particularly as women strove against the paternalism prevalent throughout Western society.


Hedda is an aristocrat, or the next thing to it -- the daughter of General Gabler.  Losing her marriagable bloom, she eventually gave in to the courting of George Tesman, an academic from a modest middle class background.  As the play opens, George's doting Aunt Julia and family serving woman Berte inform us that the two are returning from a six-month continental honeymoon, to a grand house acquired for them by Judge Brack at the request of Tesman.


Class differences, a maiden aunt, a servant, setting up a household -- the opening of the play suggests a lumberingly bourgeois setting.  Aunt Julia is hoping that the six months of new-married intimacy are bearing the promise of a new baby.  George Tesman is thick enough to miss her delicate inquiries on that score.


Robin Grace Thompson, Chase CrossnoIbsen cheerfully flings high explosive into this stifling drawing room.  Hedda is sharp with Aunt Julia and unreconciled with her own descent into domesticity.  Former acquaintance Thea Elvsted appears to appeal to George to extend a hand to Eilert Lövborg, a reformed dissolute.  One on one, Hedda quickly has the truth out of Thea, who abandoned her husband and children for Lövborg.  Their relationship may or may not be platonic, but it is one of rapture for Thea and inspiration for Lövborg.



Hedda had a heavy flirt with Lövborg once, perhaps even a fling, during which she pumped him to confess and even invent salacious experiences.  She eventually drove him off by threatening him with one of General Gabler's pistols.  After a long bout with alcoholism,Lövborg has now worked for several years as a tutor to Thea's children and published an acclaimed book, having dictated it to her, his protector and muse.


This  welcome set of complications is more than enough to lift Hedda from the ennui of her new bourgeois existence.


Nathan Osburn, Robin Grace Thompson, Chase CrossnoIt's a cracking good plot, with plenty of opportunity for melodramatic mischief.  Hedda rapidly involves herself in the lives of all these people, right up to her elbows.



Nigel O'Hearn faithfully follows the mechanics of Ibsen's intrigue in this version.  His principal innovation is the pungent contemporary language he gives these characters. When exasperated by the family servant Berte, Hedda turns to her husband and snaps, "George, that servant is just not going to cut it!"  In her alarmingly intimate conversation with Judge Brack concerning the six months of honeymoon, she comments sourly that her pedantic husband couldn't resist spending hours and hours in libraries.  "He was always pissing his pants with excitement over those old documents."


The staging, the casting, and the set design play on this unexpected tension between a stolid 19th century exterior and a steaming 21st century interior.  Women wear bustles and gents wear suits -- but we see Hedda first in a floating white nightgown and robe, then in a tight fitting crimson and black dress.  Costume designer Ben Taylor Ridgway has defined the men's suits with casual strokes of paint on fabric or on shoes, almost as if they were sketches in charcoal.  George Marsolek's set has the crowded look of a bourgeois parlor but the towering wall behind the players is hung with merciless mirrors and the bouquets of flowers crowding the flat surfaces are dried and dead.


In my mind's eye, Ibsen's Cristiana is dominated by ageing and thoroughly stuffy older folk -- maiden Aunt Julia, devoted to her unseen sister Rena whose health has long been failing; Berte the servant who has spent "many happy years" with Julia and now finds herself consigned to master Georgie and his new wife; stuffy, pudgy George Tesman; and Judge Brack, about 45, relatively senior in that epoch, given to "wearing outdoor clothing that's a little too youthful for him."


In contrast, most of the cast chosen by Director Kate Eminger is a little too youthful for Ibsen's original concept, a fact that contributes a contemporary intensity to the melodrama.  In the role of Aunt Julia, Rachel McGinnis Meisner, who has played many a vital, youthful role in this town, appears no older than her nephew.  Aaron Alexander is credibly good hearted and clueless but could be a new Ph.D. student rather than the 33-year-old pedant recently recognized by a foreign university with a doctorate honoris causa. Jacqueline Harper as Berte the servant is sniffy but entirely uncowed by Hedda.  Rommel Sulit as the eminent, oily judge has got some years on him but he wears them lightly.  Nathan Osburn as Lövberg shows few signs of dissolute living; he's trim, angry and athletic looking.  The acting is uniformly of high standard.


Nathan Osburn, Robin Grace Thompson, Chase Crossno


Robin Grace Thompson gives us a Hedda who is burning with psychic energy.  She is deliberate and wicked, provoking each of the others except for husband George, whom she tolerates much as she might put up with a clumsy puppy.   In her duo scene with Judge Brack, she flings herself on the sofa and wraps her legs about his, suggesting strongly that the two have carnal knowledge of one another.  Opposite this devil with a red dress on is big-eyed, demure Chase Crossno, clad in blue and wrapped in idealism.  The bout between the two of them is an unequal one. Hedda is smarter and more devious, and she is looking to cause trouble.



Robin Grace Thompson, Rommel SulitSome writers have seen the play as a drama of class conflict.  Others have posited that Ibsen offered us two visions of himself, as George the stuffy academic and as the frustrated genius Lövberg.  You could get involved in the vision of Thea as the selfless muse -- the angel -- and Hedda as the selfish, fallible and self-hating mortal.  Harold Clurman wrote, "What lends stature to Ibsen's Hedda Gabler is not so much the psychology of a lady caught between two social classes, but our recognition that we are all a little like her -- unable to find any sphere which satisfies our inmost needs."



The O'Hearn/Eminger version offers another approach,limned by script quotes appearing on two of the posters.  Thea:  "You threatened to set my hair on fire once." Hedda: "My boredom conflagrates me." 


This Hedda resembles the "bad girl," the staple of B-movies, a yearning soul so disappointed by life and love that she's ready to turn that pistol on anyone who stands in the way of her fierce dreams.


Including herself.


Robert Faires offers brief comments from adapter Nigel O'Hearn and from director of "Heddatron" Dustin Wills, Austin Chronicle, February 17

Robert Faires' feature in the Austin Chronicle comparing Heddatron and Palindrome's Hedda Gabler, March 3

Review by Ryan E. Johnson for, March 11




Click to read ALT review of the 'export version' of Hedda Gabler, prepared for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, July 25

Click to view the program sheet for Palindrome's Hedda Gabler, adapted by Nigel O'Hearn


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Hedda Gabler (adapted)
by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Nigel O'Hearn
Palindrome Theatre (2010-2013)

February 18 - March 13, 2011
Blue Theatre (now closed)
Springdale Rd and Lyons
behind Goodwill warehouse
Austin, TX, 78702