A whirlwind of controversy arises in Henrik Ibsen’s infamous script, Hedda Gabler. In 1891, the year of the play’s release, Ibsen’s ground-breaking script was met with cautious reviews. Who is Hedda Gabler, and why does she act on her own free will? During an era where women were dutifully compliant, Hedda Gabler emerged from the dust as a welcome change to a man’s world. Hedda’s apathy towards her husband, her boredom as a wife, and her lack of submission towards social standards separates her from the traditional 19th century woman. Critics received Hedda as callous and unfeminine, simply for desiring her own rights.

Hedda’s autonomy hits us with full force in Theatre Erindale’s production of Hedda Gabler. Director Melee Hutton strengthens Hedda’s independence further by setting the script in the 1960s, when the quest for female identity was ubiquitous. Moreover, Hutton redesigns the male character of Eilert Lovborg as Anastasia Lovborg—transforming the nature of the relationship between Eilert and Hedda.

The script drops us into the lives of George Tesman (Shawn Robert Doyle) and his new wife, Hedda Tesman (Rachel VanDuzer), formerly Hedda Gabler, after their return from a honeymoon abroad. The play opens with George’s bubbly aunt, Juliana Tesman (Alma Sarai), who comes to visit the newlyweds in their new home. Juliana gushes about Hedda, displaying an unrestrained excitement towards the high-class, prestigious woman her nephew has married. Yet, when Hedda arrives on stage, she disregards George and Juliana. She appears irritable and distant, showing no affection towards George and no desire to call Juliana her aunt. While her behaviour is undeniably rude, it begins to makes sense as we learn more about her background.

After the death of Hedda’s father, she was left with little choice but to marry her first available suitor—as were the times. A woman of Hedda’s position could not become a spinster, especially because of her distaste for scandal. As we become familiarized with Hedda’s reluctant marriage, we sympathize with her character. Her intolerance for George becomes increasingly relatable, as he grows more bumbling and self-absorbed as the play progresses. Even worse, aunt Juliana continuously drops hints about the pair starting a family—much to George’s obliviousness and Hedda’s resentment.

Thrown into the mix is George’s former university colleague, Anastasia Lovborg (Giovanna Pandullo), who has just returned to town upon the release of her new book. George is enthralled by Anastasia’s brilliance. He feels he must compete with her in the world of academia. But Anastasia—a recovering alcoholic from the wrong side of the tracks—has no interest in stealing George’s spotlight. Instead, she wishes to resume her forbidden romance with Hedda.

The relationship between Hedda and Anastasia is complicated, to say the least. Although Hedda experiences daily misery and boredom in her marriage, her fear of scandal prevents her from committing to Anastasia. The gender-swapping of Anastasia’s character functions incredibly well in this production. The lesbian relationship between Hedda and Anastasia contributes greater controversy to Ibsen’s otherwise conservative script, more so than the heterosexual affair between Hedda and Eilert.

The change in Hedda’s sexuality provides depth to her character. Her unhappiness with George takes on a new meaning, as we realize that she’s trapped in the wrong type of relationship. Her love for Anastasia becomes the motive for her marriage to George—to remain unmarried, and worse, to publicly engage with a woman would ruin Hedda’s reputation. And so, she traps herself in a loveless marriage.

The characters in this production are riddled with new meanings, owing to Hutton’s fresh perspective on the story. Hutton arguably improves the script by placing it in a more applicable time period with prevalent issues of gender, sexuality, and marriage. Meanwhile, Hutton’s direction is tasteful; she respects Ibsen’s original intentions, simply adding a contemporary interpretation along the way.

Hedda Gabler was performed by graduating members of the Theatre and Drama Studies program. Their performance was highly refined and surpassed my impressions of previous Theatre Erindale productions. VanDuzer was particularly compelling as Hedda. She perfectly captured the character’s cynicism and dark humour. VanDuzer propelled Hedda’s process of unravelling, creating a noticeable timeline of character development.

Brett Houghton effortlessly slipped into his role as Judge Brack, the sly judge who attempts to woo Hedda throughout the play. Houghton managed to capture both the innocent and menacing undertones of the judge, also generating strong character development as his suggestive passes evolve into threats.

The stage pieces and props were effective for the time period—retro couches, turntables, telegrams, and conservative clothing. The setting primarily occurred in the Tesmans’ drawing room, so not many scene changes were required. Nonetheless, Hedda moved the couches and chairs between scenes, becoming more aggressive each time. She also picked at the furniture and dragged her nails across the upholstery, demonstrating the frustration and restlessness she is unable to voice.

The play ultimately centres around Hedda’s slow decline. Although she outwardly expresses her unhappiness, subtle moments betray a greater dissatisfaction. While Hedda is unafraid to vocalize her opinions, she still respects her position as a wife and woman of the era. Hedda negotiates her position in society, flitting between her role as a bored housewife and her liberation. In the end, she chooses liberation.

Hedda Gabler ran until February 5 at Erindale Studio Theatre.

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