Peripeteia’s Production of Hedda, Lucy Kirkwood’s adaptation of Ibsen’s classic, makes the rigid academic structures of Oxford the prison for the ultimate portrayal woman constrained. Cosy Richard Curtis terrain becomes dystopian, reduced to a draughty, claustrophobic flat. Oxford, too, is reduced to ‘such a small town’. India Opzoomer as Hedda seems as much a product of her surroundings as Ibsen’s, if not more so. The city of her childhood, Oxford, is the site of Hedda’s worshipful relationship with her father; rather than General Gabler, here he is the Dean of New College, his in influence a spectre over Hedda’s relationship with George.
Hedda’s experience here is the force which shapes her. Such a focus – no doubt the references have an added pathos in their delivery from Oxford students in the Oxford Playhouse – depict a more Freudian Hedda than in Ibsen’s original. George (a brilliantly irritating figure played by Finlay Stroud) will never be the academic equal of Hedda’s father, and it is little wonder that her relationship with Eli, (a standout performance from Derek Mitchell) is so toxic. The latter’s cold, black polo-necked aloofness would risk being a cliché of an intellectual, were it not for the highly moving scenes between him and Hedda recalling their lazy evenings in Christ Church Meadows.
However, Hayes’ production is so stubbornly disturbing and nuanced that any attempt to flippantly ‘explain’ Hedda, whether from a purely feminist, sociological, or psychological perspective seems ultimately reductive. As in Ibsen, this Hedda is a frustrated, highly unlikeable woman. Opzoomer’s swallowing of the USB is perhaps her finest moment, an act committed simply to have the ‘power to mould a human being’: Eli (Derek Mitchell). This is the only aspiration that Hedda claims to have. The USB holds Eli’s sense of self-worth, his ‘child’ – no wonder Hedda is jealous of such an all-consuming project. This production underlines how a vague longing for purpose drives Hedda’s behaviour. The staging of the scene is haunting; Hedda collapses to the ground, choking on the metal, swilling her mouth with alcohol.
Refreshingly, Opzoomer makes Hedda a figure with whom the audience may inwardly laugh; the comic value of her babysitting of George, this fragile ‘erudite creature’, is something she fully exploits. Her acerbic, self-aware commentary also provokes the glaring question that this adaptation raises. As Hayes underlines, in this ‘modern’ society, why doesn’t Hedda “just leave her husband and get a job?” However, it is perhaps the disinterest of Kirkwood’s Hedda in taking advantage of the opportunities that years of feminist progress have made available to her that make this adaptation such a timely one in the Playhouse’s ‘A Vote of Her Own’ programme. The audience must reflect upon a society in which a woman as intelligent as Hedda considers being not the Prime Minister, but his wife, as a role that would give her “something important to do”. No doubt this aspiration is for the best, since Hedda would make a terrifying despotic Prime Minister, but what has conditioned her to believe that this is the case? Hedda is certainly jealous of the artistic fullment that the reformed Eli is on the cusp of attaining, but there is nothing to prevent her from writing her own novel? Is it the dismissive response of Toby (Marcus Knight-Adams), who mocks her artistic ambition?
It may be that Hedda is so used to fulfilling a female role – through a mix of monologues and confessions, we see her as an adoring daughter, a patient girlfriend who dutifully “talked and talked and talked” to save George from discomfort, a patronised wife who begrudgingly offers her sister-in-law tea that, even in the twenty first century, her sense of self is determined by how she feels she is perceived in a patriarchal lens.
Contrary to what Kirkwood’s title suggests, this production underlines how Hedda is never allowed to simply be Hedda. The same may be said of Thea (Georgie Murphy), who depressingly declares how desperate she was to have been ‘used’ by Eli. Hedda enjoys the only power she knows, that of the domestic sphere. She relishes Toby’s irtations, severs the relationship of Thea and Eli, delights in extracting an admission from Eli that Thea is ‘stupid’.
Hedda’s manipulation of her milieu, yet subsequent self-destruction, and the innate sense she can do nothing to improve her situation, creates the tragic impression of a woman who, for all her privilege, believes that she is powerless. Had she lived, she would have continued believing this for as long as she perceived herself through a pre-determined social role. Whilst the challenges faced by Ibsen’s original Hedda were far simpler to define, Peripeteia Productions’ interpretation underlines how the character is anything but irrelevant.