Hedda Gabler (Hungarian State Theatre Cluj)

  • Hedda Gabler, Hungarian State Theatre Cluj, 12/10/16 (Sat), Tokyo
  • Hedda Gabler, BBC film (1963), 12/11/16 (Sun)

This was a production by a Romanian group performing a Norwegian show in Hungarian in Japan – how’s that for globalism? This was part of the annual Ibsen Festival and one of three productions of Hedda (the others were in Japanese and Norwegian). The actors are from a Hungarian-speaking part of Romania, one of those oddities resulting from one war or other. I brought along a Hungarian friend among others to critique the translation. 

The director Andrei Şerban seemed to be doing his best to put his own stamp on the show with no apparent idea of what he was trying to accomplish, employing over-the-top artificiality in acting and lighting. It was certainly memorable, if that was the idea, but not in a good way. The actors would pose unnaturally, furniture would be rearranged between scenes even though the action takes place the same day, lights would come up and down at random, dialogue was delivered in a mannered strangeness, emotions were exaggerated (such as the aunt’s screech when Hedda insults her hat), weird additions were made, like the invented prostitute who popped in from time to time. The play somehow got lost along the way.

The actress playing Hedda, one of the great female roles in theater, was all over the map in her acting style; it was not clear if she was supposed to be manipulative, jealous, acting spontaneously or what. Her husband was especially irritating with his wildly overdone emoting (such as with the aunt’s death), but all the players were more or less guilty of the same, suggesting that problem lay with the director. The show seems to have been updated to the 1950s or 1960s given the period music that the actors would play on the phonograph at various moments (“Only You”, do-wop pops, “Unforgettable”, “Fly Me To The Moon”), a bizarre contrast with the Schubert melodies heard otherwise. Those songs did not have any real connection to each other or to the plot, nor was the period reflected in the costumes or other aspects. They were a distraction. The ending of the show was changed significantly, with the husband and others either unaware or unconcerned that Hedda has offed herself; after they waltz offstage, she is shown collapsing outside the window dressed in her late father’s uniform as the maid pays worship to the father’s portrait. Whatever that was supposed to signify, it meant losing the wonderfully acid last line (“People just don’t do such things”) and the attitude that goes along with it. It was an odd production that does Ibsen no favors. None of my baffled friends had ever seen Hedda Gabler before. They still haven’t.

I discovered the BBC film version online the next day, a trimmed-down 75-minute affair starring Ingrid Bergman (Hedda), Michael Redgrave (husband), Ralph Richardson (judge) and Trevor Howard (Lovborg). Other than some curious close-ups at times when the conversation was elsewhere, the film was a near perfect rendition of the show, largely free-flowing with long takes as if they were filming the stage version. The characters remained largely in the home as in the stage show, the only significant exception being the added scenes at the stag party, an excellent idea that shows us what is only described by Ibsen. The scene where Hedda held the manuscript against her stomach before burning it was a superb touch that tied in with the baby theme and highlighted her impetuousness. Bergman couldn’t have been better in the title role, making it clear how Hedda could be so icy and manipulative and yet so attractive to others. Her insistence on a “beautiful” death reminded me of Mishima. Redgrave was just right as the clueless husband, and Richardson was a definitive judge. Some of the music was a bit dramatic, but that’s a minor complaint. This production is hard to beat.

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