The setting may be a tasteful silvery gray, but the themes of Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” are laid out in black and white in this new version by distinguished Irish playwright Brian Friel. Hedda, the new bride facing marital suffocation in her genteel Norwegian home, is given a sardonic turn of phrase that separates her from the 19th century timeframe. She comes across as our contemporary, trapped in a costume drama. Friel’s reworking of the original script brings subtexts right to the fore, adding clarity and emphasis, but sometimes at the expense of subtlety.
Though there are fewer Irish references than might have been expected, Friel does inject a consistent thread of humor into the domestic hothouse inhabited by Hedda (Justine Mitchell) and her guileless academic husband, George Tesman (Peter Hanly).
As is usual, Friel’s characters are conscious of their language, here particularly Judge Brack (Andrew Woodall), the Tesmans’ louche neighbor who repeatedly draws attention to his fondness for Americanisms (“making whoopee”) while flirting with Hedda. His initially idle banter takes on a more didactic tone as he warns her to find an interest outside herself and says bluntly, “People can learn to live with what they can’t change.”
This directness between them undermines the impact of a charged later scene, when he threatens Hedda with his knowledge of her part in the death of Eilert Loevborg (John Light), deepening her sense of entrapment.
A reluctance to risk ambiguity affects helmer Anna Mackmin’s production, too, with characters wringing their hands or clenching fists at heightened moments and Hanly jumping around as the excitable husband. Given the fine caliber of her cast, this seems unnecessary.
Indeed, the understated performances are the most affecting: Susan FitzGerald as George’s loving aunt; Light as the brilliant, volatile writer Loevborg, to whom both Hedda and her former schoolmate, Thea Elvsted (Andrea Irvine), are attracted.
When Hedda is with Loevborg, we glimpse the passionate young woman she once was, and her longing for action and fulfillment. Mitchell’s luminous expressiveness in these moments tends to get lost at other times, when she’s hardening into the frustrated wife — barking at servant Bertha (Billie Traynor) or making heavily ironic remarks to her husband. Somehow, we don’t get the sense that she’s so desperate that she would shoot herself.
Friel and Mackmin’s deepening of the usually pathetic character of Thea brings a new sense of balance between the two women, so that Hedda’s cruel treatment of her does not turn her into a victim. In her emotional characterization of Thea, Irvine has an almost frightening zeal that is totally convincing: Her determination to find a purpose in life, even if that means working alongside a revered man as his “soulmate” or “collaborator,” contrasts with Hedda’s aimlessness.
Standing alone, centerstage, at the closing of the play, Thea seems to embody all the women of the following century, women who seized opportunities to make a life for themselves rather than be stifled in domesticity. It is as if she’s drawing strength from Hedda’s fate, conferring dignity upon it, and it’s a memorable, moving image that requires no words.