Part of the appeal of classic texts is the opportunity they provide for a fresh take on the themes and characters as seen through a contemporary lens. Hedda Gabler is a prime candidate for this treatment. The play first staged in 1891, features gaslighting – in both senses – and sexual exploitation, but it ends with Hedda defeated by circumstances and by herself, condemned to an offstage quietus. Some have sought to “modernise” the play by reverting to Ibsen’s draft and having the final scene between the principals – Hedda and her nemesis – played out front and centre so that Hedda wins even as she loses. However, in Shooting Hedda Gabler, a completely fantastic (and perfectly named) meta-adaptation of the original, commissioned by Kingston’s Rose Theatre – now very much back on track – the award-winning playwright Nina Segal goes even further. Taking a cue from #MeToo and the lessons to be learned from predators like Weinstein, Segal’s thrillingly imaginative and hilarious take on Ibsen’s play is set in Norway, Ibsen’s birthplace, where a man referred to only as Henrik is directing a film based on Hedda Gabler. He wants truth. He wants reality. But this is a film set and nothing is real. Until it is.
In Henrik’s film, the actress playing the actress playing Hedda is Antonia Thomas. Thomas seemed to have been lost to streaming producers a few years ago, and here makes a welcome return to live theatre. She is terrific – vibrant and vulnerable and coldly exploitative as she decides how to “be” Henrik’s Hedda. As the brutal auteur, Christian Rubeck is compelling, dismissive of the measures put in place precisely to deal with industry figures like Henrik and unwilling to compromise in any way. His vision includes casting the former love of the actress playing Hedda as Hedda’s former love, Eljert who is Hedda’s best chance to get out of the film in one piece. Avi Nash is another actor who hasn’t been seen enough on stage and, he is utterly convincing as he bends this way and that to keep Hedda on track. Joshua James plays Jørgen – another actor whose character is drawn from Hedda’s husband in Ibsen’s original. James and Matilda Bailes, who plays a hapless and unwanted intimacy co-ordinator, are the comic heart of Segal’s brilliant adaptation. Both are simply hilarious. Anna Andresen plays Henrik’s co-director Berta, trying to keep the show on the road and the actors from killing Henrik or each other. While directors don’t come off all that well in this play, the director of Shooting Hedda Gabler, Jeff James, delivers in every department, complemented ably by Kieran Lucas’s music and sound design as well as Hansjörg Schmidt’s lighting. The enormous two-level set is designed by Rozanna Vize, whose credits include the stark but memorable set for the Sherman Theatre’s 2021 production of Brian Friel’s adaptation of Hedda Gabler. There are some similarities but at the Rose you feel Vize had greater freedom and the result is gloriously immersive. You are on set. And off. And when the outside world is needed it enters on cue.
This is a terrific production of a terrific new play. Do whatever you can to get a ticket.
Review by Louis Mazzini
Shooting Hedda Gabler unfolds on a movie set in Norway where filming is underway for a film adaptation of Hedda Gabler. Inspired by conversations born out of the #MeToo movement, Nina Segal has created an affectionate, sharp and chilling reframing of Henrik Ibsen’s 130-year-old story, directed by Jeff James (Persuasion).
After being offered the title role, an American actress seizes her opportunity to escape Hollywood – and gain some artistic credibility. What awaits her in Norway is a film set where reality and fiction are blurred by Henrik, the brilliant and demanding director.
With every moment being filmed, she is gripped by paranoia. As the atmosphere on set becomes increasingly claustrophobic, Henrik becomes fixated on how to end the movie with a bang.
Antonia Thomas (Misfits, The Good Doctor, Lovesick) leads the company as Hedda, with Christian Rubeck (Succession, Then You Run) as Henrik, Avi Nash (The Walking Dead, Silo) as Ejlert, Anna Andresen (Emilia) as Berta, Matilda Bailes (Persuasion) as Thea, and Joshua James (Cyrano) as Jørgen.
SHOOTING HEDDA GABLER
Starring Antonia Thomas as Hedda
29 September – 21 October