There’s a moment in the Abbey Theatre’s production of Ibsen’s drama when the wearingly bored Hedda Gabbler (Catherine Walker) and recovering alcoholic Eilert Lovborg (Keith McErlean) mull on the fallout of their past relations. “You should have shot me”, says Lovborg to a woman who has had sufficient target practice (Hedda is the daughter of a general), “What were you afraid of?”
“Of what people would say about me after”, she muses mournfully. The two figures, trapped by society’s conservatisms, sit on a stage that in Paul O’Mahony’s design suspiciously angles itself towards the audience, as if seeking accountability.
The fear of scandal is felt in director Annabelle Comyn’s staging of this new adaption by Mark O’Rowe. Hedda returns from her honeymoon with the academic Tesman (congenial Peter Gaynor) to a newly furnished house. The copious deliveries of flowers could suck the oxygen from the air, if several plastic sheets protecting the furniture don’t suffocate first.
Hedda shows no affection for her new husband, and is more excitable by the social rewards of his upcoming professorship. When the judge Brack (sly Declan Conlan) gives news that Tesman is in competition for the post with an old rival, Hedda faces a life of tedium, being bored to death. “There are other things I suppose I can pass my time with… my father’s pistols”.
Fated to live an uneventful and domestic life, her fascination with another married woman, Thea (Kate Stanley Brennan), radically poised to leave her husband for the controversial Lovborg, poses new possibilities. “But what about all the people?” she exclaims, shackled by the fear of public scrutiny. Yet her manipulation of the two sometimes seems set to ensure their relationship rather than their destruction.
It is Hedda’s array of contradictions and neuroses that makes Walker suited for the role, an actor often stylistically eccentric and idiosyncratic. Her voice rings with an insincerity that makes the character’s motives hard to pin down. Towards the end, she stalks the décor in a black dangling dress, like a spider searching for a cranny. You sense a departure from reality.
Yet, even if O’Rowe is scrubbing Ibsen’s scenes with naturalism, Comyn’s direction seems to be at odds, not making that tedium feel all that draining. Neither can she link the period-playing of the drama (as adorned by Peter O’Brien’s aristocratic costumes) with the culpability of a present world, as suggested in O’Mahony’s design of Hedda’s house, its supports wearing as it arches suspiciously towards the audience.
Walker’s turn may be sophisticatedly slippery but it doesn’t prompt us to speculate all that much on Hedda’s intentions. In lieu of a leading lady that, well, leads, the drama’s consequences don’t feel well contained. The final beat, realising that the character’s shocking fate is to be taken as unserious as the rest of her life, should disturb. It’s just hard to find that smoking gun.
Hedda Gabbler is playing at the Abbey Theatre until 16 May. For tickets and more information, see the Abbey Theatre website. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.