Lucy Kirkwood’s Ibsen update relocates events from the nineteenth century to modern day Notting Hill, setting the play in the streets outside the tiny Gate Theatre.
Still grieving for her father, here an Oxford scholar, Hedda has impulsively married George, a good-hearted if overly earnest academic type. She returns from her honeymoon to a dilapidated flat with a hefty mortgage, no job of her own and little inclination to get one and pregnant with George’s child. Used to being the centre of attention and fond of playing games with people, she has backed herself into a life of, as she sees it, mundane domesticity; she is shipwrecked in nappy valley with nothing to do, living with man she doesn’t really love, in a home she dislikes.
Cara Horgan, long-limbed and angular with perfectly bobbed hair, is wonderfully charismatic as Hedda and, more importantly, she somehow finds room for a note of vulnerability in her performance, impressive given how hard a woman Hedda can be, whether visibly flinching from her sister-in-law’s touch or mocking poor wet-eyed Thea. Her Hedda, bored and idle, floats around her flat, casually playing with her father’s antique pistols (a tad implausibly it must be said), hungry for excitement of any kind.
Excitement comes in the form of the volatile Eli Longford (played by Adrian Bower, formerly of Teachers and John Simm’s co-star in the excellent Elling), a brilliant but vice-prone academic who carries the only existing copy of his new book in a memory stick he wears on a chain around his neck. He has a past with Hedda, as does their friend and neighbour, Toby, who seems decent enough and speaks for the audience when he tells Hedda to get a bloody job (her response: she has tried and failed, and considers herself unemployable) but yet he is happy to let himself be toyed with by Hedda. No man, it seems, is immune.
Horgan is backed by a superb cast. Tom Mison is excellent, in what is a particularly difficult role, as George, Hedda’s husband. He is amiably nerdy and clearly in thrall to his new wife but not completely passive and you can see why she may once have been, briefly, drawn to him. Bower is sufficiently intense as Eli and Cath Whitefield makes a strong impression in the comparatively small role of George’s loyal, loving sister, Julia.
Carrie Cracknell’s direction is, at times, inspired. Her use of music in particular is always complimentary and never intrusive. And, though the production runs for nearly two hours without an interval, it never flags, it grips throughout. But though Kirkwood’s adaptation is well-realised (and a huge step up from the patchily interesting but laboured and overlong Tinderbox which played earlier in the year at the Bush) it struggles with a fairly fundamental problem, in that is nearly impossible to sympathise in any way with this modern Hedda. Her prison is, after all, one of her own making and the social factors that fenced in Ibsen’s Hedda no loner apply, not in any real way. She comes across as supremely self-involved, manipulative and just plain cruel, an adolescent who has never grown up.
Though Kirkwood has done her best to find a way round this the loss of Hedda’s father has clearly disturbed her and she views herself as damaged goods, broken, beyond fixing it is not enough to mitigate her behaviour. Despite Horgan’s fine performance, a tall wall remains and it is hard to care that much about her plight.