Hedda Gabler is arguably Henrik Ibsen’s most well-known work. Premiering in 1891, it has been performed in dozens of countries and in dozens of different languages and now, relative newcomers Factotum Theatre Company are adding to its long theatrical legacy. Staged in the exceedingly intimate upstairs theatre in Darlinghurst’s TAP Gallery, all we see is all we need: Tesman’s drawing room, where Hedda holds court.
The smallness of the stage is actually quite effective. Hedda Gabler, who insists her one and only talent is “boring herself to death”, feels trapped like a bird in the proverbial cage: she is the mistress of her household, but that domain is only a few paces wide by a few paces deep, and so few of her social set are due to call. Layered chamber music over act changes creates an effective sense of in medias res by often obscuring opening words in opening lines; as the play continued it managed to create almost a sense of voyeurism, which — whether intentional or not — was probably the best thing about the production.
Hedda tries to combat her boredom with cruel entertainment: she insults the brand-new hat of her new husband’s aunt; she draws out details of young Mrs Elvsted’s affair with recovering alcholic Lovborg; she openly mocks her bookish and oblivious husband. It isn’t long before these smaller cruelties escalate into death and ruination.
Rebecca Wood’s Hedda enacts all her plans without a trace of sincere happiness, for all her hidden smirks and smiles. It’s not enough to satiate her. While the most striking and memorable characterisation of Wood’s Hedda comes from her strident and compelling voice, she commands attention on stage, a living example of a bored, once-rich woman with nothing that makes her happy.
Wood is best matched on stage by Richard Hillier, whose tortured Lovborg is darkly comic and even a little arresting, particularly when he happens to succumb to drink over again (and whose capability with the period language makes his believability all the stronger). Lana Kershaw gives Mrs Elvsted a suitable fluttering nervousness, and Penny Day’s Aunt Julle manages to infuse into the production a better sense of authenticity thanks to her ease of performance.
While the later acts felt too rushed to properly ground Hedda’s plans in a much-needed growing tension as they moved beyond her control, and the collective characters’ emotional range felt a little stilted to paint a suitably rich portrait of these people’s lives — Hedda’s death feels abrupt, despite her romanticism of Lovborg’s death as beautiful freedom — it really is worth giving credit to a new company, under the direction of Liz Arday, taking on such historical and celebrated work.