Review-Hedda Gabler-New Vision Arts Festival



By: Joyce Wong


“I feel like we’ve gone back in time.” So whispered the gentleman next to me to his friend last night during the New Vision Arts Festival’s premiere of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler directed by the acclaimed Adrian Noble. Indeed, as the cast, dressed in wonderful fin de siècle European costumes (by Mandy Tam), performed on a four-sided stage furnished with red velvet chaise lougue, high-backed armchairs, candle lamps and a wooden writing desk, one felt temporarily transported to another time.


In four acts, Hedda Gabler is a domestic drama which narrates the struggle of a frustrated woman trying to find personal fulfillment in a rigid bourgeois, patriarchal society. This Chinese rendition produced by Sean Curran was true to the script in its entirety and the translation by Rupert Chan was done well. I’ve never watched a Chinese version of a foreign language play before. At first I had my reservations about 1890s Oslo rendered in Cantonese but everything, including metaphors and figures of speech we knew from the English version of the play, translated from Norwegian, were carried across naturally into Cantonese.


Rarely do shows in Hong Kong perform in the round. This production was staged in the Cultural Centre’s Studio Theatre and had a creative set design (by Lee Yun Soo) which utilized all sides of the stage. Suspended onto the central square stage were four large gauze-veil panels, one on each side of the stage, which boxed together to form a cubic space onstage. Within the space was the living room where all the action took place. The panels were lifted and lowered at times to serve as room partitions, windows and walls and at other times they served as symbolic boundaries between the characters. Act One began with the cube descended and a single spotlight on Hedda who stood within it as if she were trapped in a cage. It was a clever addition to the script to set the tone for different acts or evoke character interiority; and, throughout the play, this cubic space was used in other symbolic ways.


One side of the stage connects with a long staircase leading to the level of the upper circle, where a piano is placed atop against the wall. The stage was carpeted in rose petals; the red of the sofas against the red of the floor was visually decadent and overwhelming. I thought it accentuated the “odour of death” Hedda finds in Aunt Juju’s flowers quite powerfully.


I felt something was missing, though, and that was a portrait of General Gabler. Such a symbolic prop in the play’s stage design was nowhere to be found. In its original design, the portrait hangs in an upstage room that marks Hedda’s private space. Hedda’s struggle with her perceived gender role largely roots in a masculine upbringing by her militaristic father. Still very much a daddy’s girl after marriage (the play isn’t Hedda Tesman), the portrait sustains General Gabler’s looming influence over Hedda. In the original text, Hedda nears the portrait in times of doubt or vulnerability. It seems a shame to take away this detail which adds dimension to Hedda’s complexities.


I really enjoyed the staging of the group scenes. The actors paced around each other, diverged to the corners of the stage and converged again at times to reflect shifting dynamics, intentions and motives with distance. There was also a good use of levels, such as when Hedda stood on the staircase to address those below or when some characters sat on the couch while others stood on the floor. There was a lot of dramatic tension achieved by this and it also reflected character relationships effectively.


The cast gave an overall solid performance. Tesman was played well by Tang Shu-wing as the sentimental, mediocre, love struck ninny that he is. Chan Wing-chuen bantered, flirted and blackmailed to good humour as the dandy Judge Brack. The way Tommy Chu cared for Thea (Ivy Pang) as Loevborg yet ultimately succumbed to Hedda’s manipulation made you twist in your seat. A scene in Act Two of the trio all squished on the couch, as Loevborg and Hedda fired innuendoes laden with irony and sarcasm at each other, was a joy to watch. Amy Chum was great as Tesman’s doting aunt and Mandy Yiu’s Bertha elicited many laughs from the audience with her inconvenient intrusions on private conversations and compromising situations (as when Hedda burns Thea’s hair).


A self-important coward, a vulnerable temptress and a jaded romantic, Hedda Gabler is one of Ibsen’s most striking and difficult heroines. Bonni Chan made her entrance as Hedda in a tailored white dress, descending down the staircase in a dignified air. She captured the tone of a vain and aristocratic socialite with promise from the beginning. All was well until it got to the climatic book-burning scene of Act Three, when I felt her portrayal of Hedda was unfulfilled. This scene is the only moment in the entire play where we see Hedda onstage alone as her truest self. At this point, she reaches the height of her irrational destruction as she is gripped by an obsessive fervour to burn Loevborg’s manuscript and revel in the infanticide of this ‘child’. Chan’s delivery of Hedda’s hysterics lacked impact; the fire crackling sound effect, the burning tin bucket onstage and the wild shadows cast onto the cubic veil all contained more drama.


With that said, this Hedda Gabler is still well worth watching. The production values are high and it was especially great watching the mechanics of the stage synthesis - with lighting (by John A. Williams) and sound (by Vincent Pang) - create reconfigured tableaux from the original text. There’s also not a bad seat in the house because every seat reveals a different perspective to the stage. The show is definitely done in such a way that both English and Chinese audience will be moved by what they see onstage.


Hedda Gabler is playing through Sunday at the Cultural Center. For more information, click here.



Rate This Show: 1 2 3 4 5 Audience Rating: 3.7


  • Laura
    08 November 2014

    Seeing it on Sunday! Can't wait!
  • Meaghan
    29 January 2015

    I think the ticket price was completely worth it for the visuals of the show. The set and lighting design was flawless.

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