Thomas Ostermeier’s staging of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler for the Schaubühne updates the plot to our days and shows the Tesman’s house as a posh town house with a Ligne Roset couch and stylish French windows to the garden. Jan Pappelbaum’s sets are indeed beautiful and intelligent – on a revolving stage we can see either the living room from the garden or the garden from the living room plus some sort of hall to the interior of the house. The French windows are almost always wet with raindrops, images are projected on the concrete wall separating hall and living room for the changes of act (the play is performed without intermissions) and a huge inclined mirror above allows the audience to see the whole stage at the same time.
In order to fit the concept, the dramaturg found it convenient to adapt the text not only to include references to computers, AIDS or cell phones, but also a great deal of internal trimming or re-ordering of dialogues and scenes have been done. Not to mention that some lines were just altered to fit the concept. For example, the last dialogue is originally written:
(A shot. The three rise to their feet.)
TESMAN – Oh, my God – what is she –
(Runs in, open curtains. Mrs. Elvsted follows. Scream, confusion. Berte enters through the dining room door.)
TESMAN – Shot herself! In the temple!
BRACK – God – people – people don’t do things like that.
[quoted from Nicholas Rudall’s translation]
But was performed this evening as:
(A shot. All look towards the hall.)
TESMAN – Here she goes again with her pistols…
(All smile and resume what they were doing).
TESMAN, wrily – Maybe she shot herself this time!
BRACK, still laughing – That would be a nasty thing to do!
When a dramaturg is able to change the concept of a scene by finding a second layer of meaning in the original lines, that is often illuminating, but when one just cuts what does not fit or alters that to fit the concept, then there is nothing to praise in that. I would even add that the audience should be previously warned that they are supposed to see an adaptation.
In any case, even if I do not like the dramaturgie, Ostermeier’s stage direction is often very perceptive and sensitive. It is hard to say who is to blame for the loss of dramatic tension caused by the adaptation – the audience tended to see the play as a comedy and the amount of laughing did not decline even when the tragic events start to take pride of place in the plot. For example, a key scene – Hedda burning Lovborg’s manuscript – here was reduced to crazy comedy, no reference was made to Thea’s hair because, in this production, she just has it short (why?!). Those who have seen this scene done for real with a great actress (as I have with Cate Blanchett at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) know how unpleasant and almost disgusting it can be.
The loss of increasing tension involve a second casualty – the sense that Hedda is increasingly being confined and deprived of freedom and becoming more and more manic to the point of committing suicide is entirely lost. Although we are made to see Hedda covered in blood, one almost expects her to get up and laugh of everyone’s surprise with yet another practical joke of hers.
What makes it all more regrettable is that a truly excellent cast has been gathered here. It takes some time to get used to Katharina Schüttler’s Hedda, the kind of casting the French call contre-emploi. She looks 18 years old, what goes against the timeline in the story (unless we understand that her early relationship with Lovborg happened when she was 13), and is too short to look as formidable as everyone describes Hedda. However, her thorough understanding of the multiple levels of meaning in her lines make her seem more mature than she looks. She also has a great voice and is extremely charming. The scheming and seductive aspects of her character were ideally portrayed – only the desperation, the sense of being lost in one’s own labyrinth is rather muted. Maybe other director would steer her into the optimal point.
On the other hand, Lars Eidinger was an ideal Tesman. In this production, the interesting decision of having a better-looking actor for Tesman (whereas the “leading man” role usually goes for Lovborg) proved to be particularly sensible. As performed by Eidinger, Tesman has a certain clumsy charm that makes us understand why Hedda would have married him at all. He is no genius, but there really should be something pleasant about him that explains why so many intelligent people put up with his second-rate standard. On the other hand, Kay Bartholomäus Schulze’s Lovborg is quite uncongenial – he also looks older than I am used to see (what makes sense considering his lifestyle). He is first seen as a boorish snob who even aggresses Thea in front of Hedda. After his falling from grace, he appears covered in blood and behaving like a teenager, what makes it difficult for us to see why anyone would want him to have a “beautiful” end or something like that.
Annedore Bauer also offered an interesting approach to Thea, a role generally shown as awkward and quite irritating, but here rather quieter in her plainness and likable in her vulnerability. Last but not least, Jörg Hartmann is an ideal Brack – as in the Schaubühne’s production of A Streetcar named Desire, this actor seems to have a natural talent to making sense of whatever directorial choice.