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Hedda Gabler (adapted by Adena Jacobs)

Photo by by Ellis Parrinder

Belvoir presents HEDDA GABLER, adapted by Adena Jacobs, from the play by Henrik Ibsen, at Belvoir St Upstairs Theatre, 28 June – 3 August.

Adena Jacobs has adapted and Directed Henrik Ibsen’s great play, HEDDA GABLER (1890), into an 85 minute imagining of actor Ash Flanders playing Hedda that had, some time in her preparation, planning, “suddenly” allowed her to perceive “the poetry of Ibsen’s play anew – the yearning of escape, the terror of difference, a person squeezing out of their environment, the paradox of freedom.”

Ash Flanders is a Melbourne-based theatre-maker. In 2006 he and Declan Greene (EIGHT GIGABYTES OF HARDCORE PORNOGRAPHY) formed the DIY theatre company Sisters Grimm – together they have written and produced numerous shows including LITTLE MERCY (Sydney Theatre Company), SUMMERTIME IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN (Theatre Works/Griffin) and THE SOVEREIGN WIFE (NEON Festival – Melbourne Theatre Company), for which Ash won Best Actor at this year’s Green Room Awards….  (3)

Why it was Ash Flanders that inspired Ms Jacobs perception, and not someone else, is the mystery, here, for me. I kept asking, as the production ‘unspooled’: What are the qualities in Mr Flanders that inspired such a choice? Was it a personal insight into the integrity of this artist’s life that mirrored Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler so powerfully, over and above any woman in this country, and so Ms Jacobs felt was explicitly relevant for her directorial approach, and could be bravely revealed? I began to ask, more especially, as the time and ‘offers’ (e.g. a naked’ Fe-male-ist’ Hedda – a vision of a male upper torso, legs and ‘disappeared’ sexual organs, pressed against a glass window at us) were passed on, is this some kind of ‘queer’ political, social experiment (statement) been cloaked over this play for our contemporary time? Perhaps, it is. Why and wherefore? To provoke a disquisition on the contemporary pertinence of sexual-gender politics? If so, is this production, then, a GLBTI (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgendered, Inter-sex) claim to this text in 2014, that has superseded the feminist politics of our times? (Although, Ibsen never claimed to argue an exclusivist feminist standpoint). To be a little more mundane, with my curiosity, was it an admiration, by Ms Jacobs, of the technical skills of this artist that she felt would, could, truly illuminate this play for us?

Whatever, I had heard or read about this production, I was prepared, able to, at least, go with the vision, the choice, that Ms Jacobs had made, and was willing to spend the time with her instincts. I attended to the production.

In regard to having been asked about her casting of Mr Flanders, “repeatedly”, Ms Jacobs tells us, in her program notes:

This is not the place for explanations, as I hope the production speaks for itself.

It did not, and disappointment with a kind of a ‘ruin’ of the play was in existence in the Upstairs Theatre at Belvoir, and an opportunity, of seeing HEDDA GABLER, by Henrik Ibsen, in Sydney, again, thwarted, was the result, for me. This production was, to use some of the ‘poetry’ of the play’s imagery, a messy fatal wound to the stomach, and not one that one could wear a wreath of vine leaves in the hair, for.

As I prepared for this production, Dr Philip Haig Nitschke of the pro-euthanasia group, Exit International, harassed by our contemporary ‘authorities’, came to mind as I re-read the period authorities’ vitriolic response to Henrik Ibsen and his literary propositions in HEDDA GABLER (and his other plays), in 1890 – for it seems, in the contemporary case of Dr Nitschke, in our real lives, nothing much as changed since then. So, for me, regrettably, the casting and editing of this great text, by Ms Jacobs seemed, to distract us, and our ‘authorities’, in our world, from the devastating debate that Henrik Ibsen gave us 124 years ago. That Ibsen’s debate is still raging about us, daily, and yet is not a central part of the response to this production at Belvoir, seems, to me, an example of the obfuscation, of Ms Jacobs’ production, and an opportunity missed. For whatever she believes she has replaced that debate with, in her adaptation, it seemed to be tremendously opaque in my experience in the theatre.

(The appropriation of the reputation of Ibsen for Ms Jacobs’ adaptation and production, and of the play’s title, HEDDDA GABLER, reminded me of this company’s recent use of the title of Gogol’s THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR, and the foisting upon us, in that case, of a glib piece of comic ‘campery’ about actors in a “tizzy fit” of career anxiety, instead of the political comic critique that was the basis of the Russian original. I feel, this marketing ploy smacks of a kind of cynical selling strategy, to put bums-on-seats, rather than a responsible telling of our cultural, inherited genius. So much else of the original playwrights’ work has been re-written, (jettisoned), why not simply, re-title the production: “Heddy”, or “Gabler!”or “That Ibsen Woman.” An adaptation of Ibsen’s play, by the young British writer, Lucy Kirkwood, in 2008, was simply called, HEDDA. The Trevor Nunn adaptation,1975 production was also called HEDDA. Easily done, I would have thought. Why not at Belvoir? One wonders.)

This production of the play seems to be geographically set by Ms Jacobs, with Ms Jacobs’

… mind wandering towards America. Not the actual country (which is where I grew up as a child) but rather what it represents for the contemporary world, as Athens was to the Ancient Greeks. Through the gaze of the American Dream, Hedda becomes the daughter of the military, living in the gleam of a Hollywood billboard, inheriting the lessons of her forefathers. A fantasy of beauty mingled with destruction.

That the only guide for the audience in the Upstairs Belvoir Theatre to this possible location is the California number plates of a parked black period car, and what with all the actors, especially, Mr Flanders, speaking broadly in Australian accents, it makes the above an intellectual posture that she fails to communicate in the action of the production – despite the background television weather broadcast. The Lighting, by Danny Pettingill, is mostly that of mood (Hedda’s, I now presume), and hardly that of a Los Angeles skyscape – it is so weirdly dark, or, is that a surrealistic, David Lynch (INLAND EMPIRE not MULHOLLAND DRIVE) touch to the production?

The Set Design itself, by Dayna Morrissey, whose work we last saw in collaboration with Ms Jacobs on the Belvoir/Fraught Outfit production of PERSONA last year, reflects that heritage, and could not have been conceived to provide more difficulties for an audience to engage with the work of the actors. Some of the action of the play – e.g. the vital first expositional moments – is set in a very narrow, raised passage at the back of the stage, glassed in with full frontal windows and glass sliding door, so that all of the action staged up there, and there is some considerable stuff, requires the actors to be assisted by microphones. The architectural scale of this ‘room’ design is so ridiculously ‘small’ (so that two actors in passing in the space have to shuffle sideways, to accommodate it), hardly suggests the Hollywood Paradise that Ms Jacobs talks of in her notes. Similarly, other major scenes are set in the cabin/body of the car, windows closed, and also requires the microphone, and blocks any clear eye line vision for most of the audience to see anybody, clearly, in that car. The sound design of these micro-phoned live conversations are disembodied, coming from speakers around the stage (I imagine) and are hard to hear and/or make sense of, with any comfortable clarity. Add, a spa pool, jutting into the next third of the stage, flanked by the parked car, and the actors have even more difficulty to find suitable positions to play their scenes for simple story telling, or any dramatic impact to communicate to the audience.

This 85 minute adaptation has some, albeit, small textual faithfulness of most of the schemata/scenes of the original Ibsen, and when that is more present, the adaptation has most power. The translation, either the literal, or otherwise, has not been acknowledged by Ms Jacobs – can one assume that it is her own, or that of her dramaturge, Luisa Hastings Edge (although her theatre credits are mostly those of an actor) of Ibsen’s Norwegian original? The original text by Ibsen is a masterpiece of dramatic construction (see IBSEN: A Critical Study by John Northam): each word, phrase and sentence a building block in creating character, narrative development, and thematic and dramatic action of great precision. Most of all the original is redolent with mordant wit, a startling comedy, considering the seriousness of the premise of the play, a kind of vulgar satiric comedy – and it is an element shockingly absent in this adaptation, which is po-faced in its seriousness of mode.

To substitute the verbal genius of Ibsen, Ms Jacobs gives long passages of mime and stillness, that she hopes will reveal revelatory subtext. For instance, the opening scene has Hedda appear in a one piece swimsuit behind the glass and then come out into the air to languidly stretch out on the side of the spa pool, wired for sound, spied upon by a servant, and we are invited to look, watch, for some length of time. Unfortunately, Ms Jacobs, and her actor Mr Flanders, have not found a way to communicate the purpose of this choice, and try as one might, it was hard to stay active as an audience to endow anything at all, except, possibly her boredom, for we, surely, were – not a good state to be in to begin this journey – there is some time/distance to go! These longeurs of blankness emanate, repetitively, throughout the production, and unfortunately the ennui of Hedda seems never to develop one way or the other – not deeper, not higher, not less, not anything! Mr Flanders and Ms Jacobs can not find the dramatic means to take the audience with them, with their intentions. One, finally, simply watches “a fe-male-ist” in a swim costume, or later, essentially naked, beneath a waist length fur coat, with puzzled ‘titilation’.

My first encounter with Ms Jacobs was her company’s (Fraught Outfit), stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s great film PERSONA (1966), last year. And it seems to me that this work, HEDDA GABLER, is simply a continuation of that intellectual, academic gaze, wonder/wander, for no real artistic gain. Both in structure and applied techniques, this Hedda as directed, designed and played, could be the twin sister of the PERSONA production – many of the same Melbourne support artists are, similarly, engaged on it. The affect of this performance of Hedda Gabler is a showing, simply, of the outer or public personality (a persona), a surface glossary of guidance, that does not in any way attempt what Ibsen created, an exposure, representation of the inner motivations of an individual to explain the actions, the journey choices, of this woman in her attempt to find meaning in her world. This production has the cumulative affect of a woman in a carefree, careless inertia. Resultantly, one responds, occasionally, gratefully, to the shadows of the Ibsen original left in this text of Ms Jacobs, when they surface, and attempt to push away the creeping soporific tendencies that the production otherwise invites.

I found (find) it amusing to cogitate on the genius of Ingmar Bergman who, gave us a production of originality with his film PERSONA, in 1966, to follow it up with a production of HEDDA GABLER (in Stockholm in 1968), that travelled to London, and then on invitation from the National Theatre of Great Britain, re-created it with English speaking actors starring Maggie Smith, famously giving her Hedda, in 1970. Mr Bergman did not repeat his gestures from PERSONA, in directing Ibsen’s play, and certainly approached it as a work, separate from PERSONA, well worth respecting for its contemporary luminosity, and did not feel it necessary to radically adapt it.

Ash Flanders, last seen in Sydney, creating character from the studied and ‘honourable’ genre of theatre travesty – in collaboration with Declan Greene with LITTLE MERCY – a celebration, and celebrated burlesque of female identity, impersonation, re-creation of iconic gestures of great film actors, such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner (and others), to give suggestion of depth to a ludicrous story – does not seem to have here, in this work, any depth of experience, as himself, that he can reveal to suggest the inner life, world, of Hedda Gabler. Without the mask of the personality traits of others, Mr Flanders does not appear to have any dynamic to suggest anything other than the ability to wear costume, hairstyle, wig, and deliver a generalised bored hauteur. Mr Flanders plays Hedda ‘straight’, no tongue-in-cheek observation here, just a revelation of his inner life, one presumes – so, perhaps, a study of Maggie Smith or Glenda Jackson, Judy Davis or Cate Blanchett may have added edge to his performance! (I wonder if Ms Jacobs had been inspired by Paul Capsis or even Trevor Ashley, two Sydney artists, instead of Mr Flanders, what may we have had?)

Most lamentably, the vocal work from Mr Flanders lacks any theatrical skill, that is further dramatically compounded when contrasted with the obvious skills of his surrounding supporting cast. His voice has no range or imaginative language dynamic. He does not seem to have the ability to hear the other actor and respond with equal intensity or action. It is a solo performance, played at a temperature well below the energies of the others. No matter what they give to him, (fling at him) nothing returns (it must be what the experience is to hit a tennis ball against a wall of wet wettex for the other actors – nothing bounces back!). The production of the play works best when the other actors get to interact without Hedda present – even, despite, the ruthless editing of their responsibilities by Ms Jacobs and Hastings Edge. Given that the body and vocal offers by Mr Flanders are so limited in range, in communicative skills, little is able to be read by the audience as to the actor’s intentions under the guidance of Ms Jacobs inspirational choice.

Marcus Graham, as Brack, makes some affect, so does Lynette Curran, as Aunt Julie, despite the staging handicaps given to her by her Director. Anna Houston, as Thea Elvsted, despite her been locked in the car and later freed, without comment; Oscar Redding, as Eijlert Lovborg, despite his inevitable plunge into the pool – build it and one must use it, I guess; Tim Walter, as Tesman, despite an enormously ruthless edit of Ibsen’s protagonist, all give creditable attempts to create character dramatics and motivated story. While the directed creation from Branden Christine, who with her expanded presence, as the maid, Berthe, virtually ‘dumb’, had one, curiously,wishing that she was Hedda Gabler, as so much seemed to be going on in her ‘mimed’ moments with Mr Flanders. One wondered, after, if there were political statements going on with the presence of this African-American servant, especially as it is she who discovers the body of Hedda on the roof top of the car (where else would it be staged at Belvoir) and the wisdom of cutting the famed last line of the play: “People don’t do that kind of thing”. This Hedda was simply an empty spoiled creature who finally shoots herself. Why? The reasons were difficult to discern from the actions of this adaptation and production. This Hedda was bored from the start, and simply meandered to that decision, around the dramas of others, naked beneath her fur coat, with as much passion and reason as the proverbial chicken that had to cross the road – to get to the other side!

The poetry I have always seen, in Ibsen’s play, is the spectacle of a human being trapped in a self-webbed set of decisions, in a world that she has willingly, conventionally, participated in – arguably, mistakenly, perhaps, despite her social and educational advantages, and myopically, not been able to see any other way to behave (unlike the other heroine of the play, Thea Elvsted), that finally presents the protagonist, Hedda Gabler, with  a ‘freedom act’ of choice, a way to preserve her sense of ‘honour’ with a magnificent, and still, socially ‘outrageous’ choice of self destruction, suicide. Ibsen wrote this as Hedda’s only truth filled action, to escape her personal and public fear of the scandal of being different. One that Ibsen presented, daringly, as one of ultimate courage – a Hero’s gesture to preserve the vestiges of her honour. Here, at last, Hedda performs an act of will that is her own – for the actions of the world of the play, as she perceives it, gives her no other choice. To kill oneself is not easy to do, and it is an extreme choice, especially in one who otherwise ‘appears’ to be advantaged and well. The world cannot believe that people do that kind of thing – especially someone as privileged as Hedda Gabler.

Hedda Gabler’s self inflicted bullet to the brain as an honourable/heroic act was as controversial, is, as controversial, as Nora Helmer’s slam of the door on her husband and children in, A DOLL’S HOUSE (1879), as is the ‘pill in the hand’/euthanasia decision Mrs Alving must make concerning her son, Oswald in, GHOSTS (1881), as the sun, the new day rises. Society trembled with rage at such social conceits from this Norwegian genius of the theatre, Henrik Ibsen. It still does. But not with this production at Belvoir. She shooting herself was a relief for us from frustrated understanding.

Outside the theatre, on the footpath, “What a crock,” a Belvoir subscriber and friend, responded to my question on how did he enjoy it. To be honest, enough of my memories of Ibsen were awoken for me, to survive the intellectual muddle of Ms Jacobs and her play. But, now, how I long to see a faithful production of the play, again.

I have had many meeetings with Hedda Gabler over the years, including a production of mine, eons ago, with Patricia East, at the Wayside Theatre. But, my major meeting with Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler have been with 1) Maggie Smith; 2) Glenda Jackson; 3) Judy Davis; 4) Cate Blanchett; and now 5) Ash Flanders!

Recently, the West End Theatre Series broadcast in our cinemas, The Almeida Theatre production of GHOSTS, by Henrik Ibsen. Adapted and Directed by Richard Eyre. 90 minutes long, played without interval, set in period. Could one have had a more confronting contemporary experience, debate, from the theatre than this work? Not likely. If only the Belvoir had similar confidence in the great writers, or decided to commission their own contemporary plays without such piratical decisions.


  1. IBSEN. A Critical Study by John Northam. Cambridge UNiversity Press – 1973.
  2. IBSEN – A BIOGRAPHY by Michael Meyer. 1967-71.
  3. The Belvoir Program