Hedda Gabler: Bold and Charming Interpretation of Henrik Ibsen's Classic

Andrea Bræin is lying. She cheats, she betrays, she manipulates. She wanders around the stage of the malersaalen at Nationaltheater, breathing heavily. She jumps on the stairs, she laughs nervously; she shoots herself. She is Hedda Gabler.

Hedda Gabler, a classic symbol for emptiness and boredom of a luxurious, pretentious life in Oslo’s west-side neighborhood that apparently can bring out the worst of us. In Hedda’s case it is the intrigue of a woman that ultimately leads to death and destruction. She seeks for a little glimpse of power, a tiny bit of superiority upon others and thus involves all characters in her immoral, manipulative puppet show. Just a small distraction from everyday life or inherent human need of dominance over others? Ibsen never gave away her motives. She is considered a moral coward, a frustrated wife or an anti-hero, facing a tragic downfall and looking for romance and beauty at least in death. So much for the theory.

But what did the director, master graduate student Peer Perez Øian, make out of it?

From time to time we might assume that Øian might be a fan and student of the German playwright Bertholt Brecht who brought into existence the epic theater. He seeks to alienate audience and play from each other by distancing effects such as introducing all actors before the play. It is actor Mattis Herman Nyquist who reaches out to the audience, gives background information and who then slowly starts to evolve into his own role, the husband Jørgen Tesman.

By speaking towards us, by joking about the actors, the audience and the play in general, Nyquist takes away the illusion of reality, mimesis and imitation of real life. He makes clear that what we see is theater; it is a stage, it is the production of several people, all based on Henrik Ibsen’s words. It is fiction and we are made aware of it.

It is nice to see a director trying to break the fourth wall and taking into consideration one of the great dramatic theories of modern theater. Yet we might wonder why he does so.

Øian is not constant throughout his production. Yes, the actors might drop a comment towards the audience creating some kind of dramatic irony. They don’t bother to turn off the light when changing stage arrangements which are dominated by cold metal. The shiny material gives no room for distraction, the sharp light sometimes turns the scene into an interrogation room, the turning of the living room is an allusion of the world spinning around Hedda, dynamically evolving and finally simply going over her head. We are asked to see the process.

All actors never leave the stage even though they actually should be absent. They function as anonymous pawns in a game, as marionettes being moved around and appointed only by Hedda. The obvious shifting of the stage plateau has an effect of disillusionment and keeps us from completely believing in the play. Øian shakes us, he wakes us up: This is not real life, we can change everything whenever we want to. It keeps the action from moving too fast, it gives us time to settle and literally look at the constellation of the characters from a new angle. Fair enough.

However at the same time everyone becomes completely absorbed in their fictional figures. As soon as the introduction, the prologue is done the actors strip off reality and take on their roles as in most of the conventional plays.

For example Andrea Bræin meets those challenging ambivalences and yet remains too light, too confused rather that deeply dissatisfied. We totally buy her despair, her struggle for significance but she lacks the destructive self-hatred which is so imminent for the Hedda Gabler figure. That fundamental resignation and disbelief about what life still might offer her leads to her denial of her husband, her possessions, her projective pregnancy and in the end her own life.

Basically they all merge into their roles, seem to forget the audience and the play becomes an own little, isolated universe on the stage. It seems as if Øian could not decide between diegetic narration and the more popular act of resembling, of imitation and of mimesis.

But does he have to decide? What if Øian deliberately keeps us hanging between believing in the illusion and alienating from it? According to the dramatist Chekov it is the role of an artist is to ask questions, not to answer them. But it is frustrating if not the audience, if nobody can answer them. One can like or dislike Øian’s technique. One can consider at as a suspense paradox or the bare lack of decisiveness; that is up to you.

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