Review by Rosie Holmes
Hedda Gabler is probably one of the most recognisable fictional names in theatre, created by Henrik Ibsen, the second most performed dramatist after William Shakespeare, yet surprisingly, I have never seen a production of the play. I am, however, familiar with the name and the tragic ending the title character faces. Having first been performed in 1891, and since having had major names portray Gabler, The Rose Theatre brings the tale up to date, in a new adaption of the story, Shooting Hedda Gabler.
Shooting Hedda Gabler is a retelling of classic play, placing Gabler in a modern-day setting. The piece recreates the original’s plot points but updates them, as writer Nina Segal imagines what might create Gabler’s lack of freedom in today’s society. Shooting Hedda Gabler is set in Norway, as a former child actor, only ever referred to as Hedda, attempts to flee the paparazzi and to gain some artistic credibility as she plays Hedda Gabler in a new film. However, what she encounters is an increasingly claustrophobic setting in which her paranoia increases under the watchful eye of her demanding director, and the lines between reality and fiction become increasingly blurred. This is a film set and nothing is actually real, until it is.
It's an interesting take, and with it being a retelling of Hedda Gabler, the fates of our characters remain the same. In fact, within moments of the show opening the cast enforce the fact that this is a tragic tale, as they point a gun at Hedda. While the bones of the tale stay the same, Nina Segal has ensured that her retelling resonates more with a modern audience. The #MeToo movement has clearly influenced this story, and Hedda’s mistreatment by her male director results in her feeling of entrapment and lack of power and freedom – whereas, in the original, Hedda is restricted by her financial dependency on her men, something that perhaps doesn’t, and in fact shouldn’t, resonate so much with a 21st century audience.
A number of other topical issues are also evident. Gun safety and misuse on set is discussed, echoing conversations arising after the recent incident involving Alec Baldwin and the fatal shooting of his colleague, Halyna Hutchins, on set in 2021. Instead of a woman stifled by her financial dependence on men and her feeling of entrapment as she stays at home, this Hedda is trapped by her fame and what the world thinks of her. I do think it's interesting that the control of social media wasn’t explored more fully – instead there is constant reference to gossip magazines and their reporting on the actress who plays Hedda. It seemed a little odd, in a play that feels so topical, to reference magazines instead of social media, which creates an even more heightened sense of visibility for those in the public eye.
Antonia Thomas takes on the role of Hedda, or indeed, the actress who plays Hedda Gabler. Thomas slowly unravels as she struggles with finding the emotional truth in her character, her veneer of confidence evident at the start slowly disappears as she follows a path of self-destruction. As Hedda’s paranoia deepens, Thomas visibly becomes more and more vulnerable, yet angrier and angrier. Alongside her, Christian Rubeck plays predatory director Henrik. His character makes for uncomfortable viewing, as his early charm gives way to a narcissistic pursuit of the truth in his filmmaking, which results in the suffering of those around him. So convincing was his performance that I found myself turning to my companion and telling her how scared I was of him. Joshua James is Hedda’s husband, Jorgen, and Matilda Bailes is Thea, both the production’s Thea and the on-set intimacy coordinator and therapist. Both are wonderfully funny, bringing comedy to the play, but also showing naivety and suffering beneath their comic exteriors.
Despite its tragedy and the serious topics tackled throughout, this play can be very funny, particularly the first half. Much of the fast-moving dialogue is littered with humorous quips, which all of the cast deliver with impeccable timing. As the tension ramps up throughout the play, and it while, really does – I almost had to close my eyes at some points – the humour is still evident. While for some, I imagine this is quite a welcome respite from the tense atmosphere, I found this a little jarring. The piece is so successful in creating a tense, pressure-cooker atmosphere that I was honestly gripping my seat, so to be brought out of this immersion threw me.
Sound design by Kieran Lucas is successful in building suspense and tension throughout the piece. Pulsing music is played throughout the film scenes and changes of scene or set are often accompanied by loud dance music, creating a disorientating feeling. Set design is by Rosanna Vize, and is wonderfully intricate and bold. The set multi-levelled set allows for our characters to be watched by the remaining actors at all times, further adding to Hedda’s fears of entrapment and surveillance. A smaller, dollhouse replica of the set sits in one corner, as Henrik stands over it. This adds to the chilling realisation that he is a puppet-master, pulling the strings on his actors’ lives and their vulnerability to his games, another examination of the power imbalances between the characters.
Shooting Hedda Gabler may not have many surprises in terms of how the story ends, but it's for sure a sharp and sinister reframing of one of the most performed plays of all time. A wonderful cast ensure the wit of Nina Segal’s topical and relevant script is apparent, as well as the chilling and tense atmosphere. I found myself, like a child almost, watching through my fingers at the height of the drama. The double entendre of the title, Shooting Hedda Gabler, is just a preview of the multi-layered meta-narrative this piece takes you on as reality and fiction become muddled. This is an illuminating and chilling piece of theatre, as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.
Shooting Hedda Gabler plays at Rose Theatre, Kingston until 21st October 2023, tickets are available here - Shooting Hedda Gabler — Starring Antonia Thomas as Hedda | Rose Theatre, Kingston, London
Photos by Andy Paradise