When I heard the National Theatre of Norway was going to bring a radically contemporary version of Hedda Gabler to the Kennedy Center in Washington, I knew I had to be there for it. I’m not exactly sure why. It was to be performed in Norwegian, and I don’t speak Norwegian.
At least surtitles in English would be provided, so I wouldn’t have to repeat my earliest traumatic memory of theatre in a foreign language: A long time ago, following my initial failure to earn a college degree, I was given a year to read everything I possibly could in preparation for retaking my final comprehensive exams in literature. So I spent that year reading, part of it while drifting around Europe ala James Michener. It was in Copenhagen where I found myself trying to follow along with a Danish production of Archibald MacLeish’s verse play, J.B. I’d brought a flashlight and an English script, only to prove a severe annoyance to my seat mates … and to discover that J.B. made no sense in either language.
But on that same trip, I also spent some time in Oslo, where Henrik Ibsen, the “father of modern theatre,” is a national hero. In some college dramatic lit class I had managed to barely pass, I’d already been sufficiently impressed by Ibsen and Shaw to write a pair of naïve papers on them. So I sat on some Oslo coffee house terrace and read all of Ibsen’s plays again. (Actually, that’s a bit romantic: It was probably cold and raining, and I was hidden away in a dark corner of the Oslo youth hostel.) But for some reason, I fell for Hedda, and Nora, and Oswald, and Dr. Stockman, and all their dissatisfaction with “the way we were.” Since 1962, I must have seen well over a dozen Hedda Gablers alone. (See my post of Sep 11, 2012 for a brief discussion of some of them). Some were admittedly awful; some were okay; and at least two were superb. Pretty near everything has been tried in various productions, and it’s not an easy play to bring off for modern audiences. But I’m not ready to stop searching just yet. I’ve become a collector.
Evidently, I’m not alone. Hedda is still hugely popular, in part because talented actresses would kill to play the role, but also because the many roles forced upon Hedda by the expectations of others have continued to resonate with audiences for 122 years. It likely remains one of the most oft-produced plays in the world.
Despite an apparently less than enthusiastic Washington Post review that morning, there was a pretty eager audience for this second night National Theatre of Norway production — and relatively few Norwegian-speakers among us. In an ill-conceived opening stand-up monologue, the actor who would play Tessman suggested, “Apparently, none of you must read the Washington Post.”
If anyone expected the quintessential classic production of Ibsen to be presented by his own National Theatre in Oslo, before which his colossal bronze statue proudly stands guard, we were to be severely disappointed. The play was completely deconstructed. The roles of Aunt Julia and Berta the maid were “deleted,” and with them all of the furniture, any semblance of a traditional setting, and most of the potential empathy for the cruelty of Hedda’s behavior. Instead, we are coaxed into a distorted world of rotating and see-sawing platforms and colorful canvas sheets, outside time and space. The actors, who lurked about the edge of the stage even when out of the scene, wore contemporary street clothes that suggested a somewhat cavalier attitude both toward their material and their audience. The beginning of the play itself is barely noticeable, except for the switch from English to Norwegian and the projected very abbreviated translation above the stage. Oh, yes, I almost forgot the clear line of embarkation when “Tesman,” having completed his solo comedy routine and introduced the actors, yells backstage, “Okay, you can bring up the curtain!”
Interestingly enough, I did not miss the loss of language, or the stuffiness of more traditional productions. The English surtitles were bare, to say the least, but I knew the play well enough by now to know what was going on. Anyway, I’ve never appreciated the awkward translations that are the basis of English language revivals, and often dreamed of an adaptation more accessible to contemporary audiences. Maybe someday I’ll write one.
For the first half-hour or so of this production, I even thought I’d found it … a fresh look at the play, a stripped down contemporary piece about self-delusion and the need for power and respect … and about the barriers that make us become who we are and do what we do. Even the program promised to move away from class warfare to a more universal, three-dimensional representation of “the average person in a superficial society where ruthless individualism and the need to succeed come before anything else.” The minimalist but beautifully Scandinavian distorted canvas “room” on stage seemed to prepare us for an adventure which would provide new social relevance and personal insights. I was excited by the concept and impressed by its daringness My curiosity as to how they would bring this off kept me awake … until I realized it had already “gone about as far as it could go.” Like so many daring experiments on stage, it becomes more about the production, and less about the play and the human elements it means to explore.
It didn’t take long to sense that we were being fed the story in mere outline form. My intrigue waned after I saw we would be given no new insights into the complicated character of Hedda herself. The cynicism which should have come from Hedda, Brack, Tesman and Lovborg, seemed instead to becoming from the actors playing them. Clearly they didn’t seem to be having any fun with the games they were playing for us. And their apparent boredom created a restless defensiveness in the audience, as if we were being reminded that a corrupted and cynical Washington audience had neither the soul nor the capability for responding to their work. Well excuse us! And with little or no dramatic rise in tension over Lovberg’s death at the end, there was not a drop of rhyme nor reason in Hedda’s final moments when she stormed off the stage, through the audience, and shot herself out in the hallway with an unexplained revolver out retrieved from nowhere: a mere meaningless, adolescent hissy fit.
Ah well. Perhaps if I spoke Norwegian. Perhaps if I’d been in Oslo at the State Theatre of Norway. Perhaps if I’d sat once again at Mr. Ibsen’s super-size bronze feet, out in front … I might have gotten it.
I’ll keep looking!