Dana Rufolo in Luxembourg
I went to the Grand Théâtre in Luxembourg City on Saturday evening 14 January 2024 to see the touring Hedda – derived from Hedda Gabler and conceived, staged and directed by Aurore Fattier – with every intention to write about it. That is what theatre critics do: we write about what we have been given free tickets to see. However, I have a code of honour which is that if I am going to slam a production entirely, then it is better to simply let it sink under the radar of people’s attention. The exception comes about if there might be some redeeming value in the criticism, or some ancillary lesson learned from the gross mishandling of all the invisible laws that make theatre a distinctive art form. So that is why you are reading this short critique of Hedda.
Photo credit: Kevin Selerin.
The set was the first hint that something was seriously wrong with Hedda beyond the usual Regietheater approach so popular with European directors. The concept of taking a famous play and creating one’s own version of it, “nach” in German or “d’après” in French or “derived from” in English – has been so unchallenged for so long that these Regietheater directors have come to believe they are gods and therefore have the right to act as a deus ex machina entering into the original work and turning it more to their liking.
If the director or their dramaturg has the skill of a playwright, the results are sometimes startling. However, in Hedda, that was not the case. The added dialogue was banal, and the interactions between the actors rehearsing their roles in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler were highly charged emotional outbursts that had little to do with the characters or their personalities in the play as written by Ibsen. No enlightenment, no deeper understanding of Hedda Gabler for us, in other words.
The set taking up the entire studio theatre space was a green room (the space where actors rest between scenes on stage where they appear), complete with kitchenette, table and a right-stage wing dressing room. It looked precisely like the set for a television sitcom. Next came the screen where we the audience watch the live filming of the actors’ off-set action in the corridor running between green room and rehearsal stage. The screen also shows live filming from within the rehearsal space itself.
The screen was badly placed for audience viewing, not ergonomic. Not enough attention had been paid. Additionally, the play ran two hours and 40 minutes without an interval. It would take a plot that rushes as fast forward as Storm Henk just did to keep people from wriggling around in their seats and staring at their watches. This Hedda, developed at the Théâtre de Liège in Belgium, didn’t have the ghost of a plot. At least, however, it had highly talented actors including the well-known Swiss actor Carlo Brandt.
Photo credit: Kevin Selerin.
Essentially, Hedda is about a final dress rehearsal for Hedda Gabler: all the actors, dressed in late-nineteenth-century period costumes (signed Prunelle Rulens and Odile Dubucq), are in the throes of emotional anguish because of broken love promises and unmet sexual desires in their personal lives, and that emotional anguish is acted out in the green room and down the corridors to the rehearsal room. From time to time, we see the actors rehearsing scenes from Hedda Gabler, with the final scene showing Hedda committing suicide as the conclusion; the director Laure Stijn (actress Maud Wyler) is more and more distraught, and it is a wonder that the actors can function at all.
A side story takes over more than midway through the drama; it concerns Stijn being forced to recognize that she had hired the actress playing Hedda (Annah Schaeffer) because she resembles her dead sister Esther. The splintered and anxiety-provoking electronic phrases of music and repetitive references to death turn us towards thoughts of suicide and mortality; we have been forced to dive into the murky depths as if we audience members were collectively the injured duck in another play by Ibsen, The Wild Duck. By the end of our long stay in our seats, we are given no energy and no happy thoughts. No catharsis. A person I overheard afterwards said that the play was awful but was important because it is a “symptom” of new and not particularly welcome directions in theatre in Europe.
Again, we have been asked to watch the work of young creators (Fattier worked with Sébastien Monfè and Mira Goldwicht to develop the script) who fancy themselves writers but who have obviously fed themselves a diet of TV and films rather than theatre and have received an underdose of constructive criticism. If Fattier had been living in America, not Europe, she would have been given a sandbox to play around in. Firstly, in order to ensure that she knows what she is developing a play around, she would have been told to direct Hedda Gabler itself, the entire drama. Then, she would have been given time to experiment. Her blunders in an American university theatre department setting would have spared dozens of ticket-paying audience members an evening of negativity and European taxpayers at least €50,000 of poorly invested money.
Photo credit: Claire Bodson.