Is it time to give up on the Ibsen adaptations?

21 September 2019

9:00 AM

21 September 2019

9:00 AM

Pub quiz question: what do John Osborne, Brian Friel and Patrick Marber have in common? The answer is they’ve all written their own versions of Hedda Gabler. Although none of them, it should be noted, to any particular critical acclaim. Is it time to give up on the Hedda adaptations altogether and just stick to the original? Or maybe opt for a different tack: why not let a woman have a go?

Step forward, Cordelia Lynn, a 30-year-old playwright with three London productions under her belt. Having updated Chekhov’s Three Sisters for the Almeida this spring, she now turns her attention to Ibsen. And she isn’t afraid to get stuck in: not only has she changed our heroine’s name (she’s now Hedda Tesman, taking the surname of her doltish husband), she’s also made her three decades older, with a semi-estranged daughter and a taste for sloe gin to boot.

It’s an interesting idea, but does it work? Well, yes and no. As a character, Hedda Tesman is excellent: waspish, jaded, manipulative — and played brilliantly by the rather vampish Haydn Gwynne. The problem, though, is what Hedda 2.0 means for everything else.

Imagine Ibsen’s masterpiece as a perfectly tuned sound system. Move one dial and you risk pulling the whole thing out of joint. Lynn has aged only the Tesmans, for example, and not the other characters, which leads to some unintended confusion. When Hedda and Eilert (renamed Elijah) whisper about their past fling, we assume it was an extramarital affair rather than a youthful misadventure. And if Hedda is savvy enough to cover up cheating, why hasn’t she chucked Tesman already?

This isn’t the only niggle. Thanks to an odd production quirk — any objects relevant to the plot have been left as deliberately retro — there’s a danger that twists will be flagged too early in advance. Hedda’s house is uber-modern yet her pistols look like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean, while Elijah’s book is as yellowed and ornate as the US Constitution. For first-timers, it serves as an unwanted spoiler: if it looks old, you know it’s important.

Not that the play doesn’t have its saving graces. The acting is sound and Lynn’s dialogue — funny, zippy and emotionally mature — is first class. She clearly loves Ibsen’s original and, in sticking faithfully to its story, succeeds in channelling much of its power into the modern setting (no small feat in itself). It’s a solid homage, but nothing revolutionary.

Lynn has certainly been dealt a better hand than Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the playwright/screenwriter charged with modernising one of Ibsen’s less impressive plays at the Nottingham Playhouse. The problem with An Enemy of the People is that it’s essentially one massive whinge — a thinly disguised attack on the moralising critics who’d taken issue with Ibsen’s previous play, Ghosts. It’s self-serving and it shows.

The play’s hero is Dr Stockmann, a studious physician who discovers that his town’s beloved spa has become contaminated with hazardous chemicals. When he raises his concerns, he’s rebuffed by the town bigwigs who fear they might damage community morale.

Undeterred, Stockmann attempts to go public with his findings, only for the town’s mayor (the embodiment of Ibsen’s critics) to launch a devious smear campaign to turn residents against him. Stockmann is pilloried, ostracised and labelled a traitor.

Plot-wise, that’s basically it. There’s no resolution or progression; at the end, a slightly bruised Stockmann (read: Ibsen) reiterates his commitment to carry on telling the truth (read: writing plays). In fact, the most interesting thing about the play isn’t anything that happens on stage, but the strange place it occupies in Hollywood history: it’s credited as inspiring the movie Jaws (which also features a no-good mayor intent on covering up trouble in the water).

Unable to summon any sharks, Lenkiewicz instead tries to spice up Enemy by drawing contemporary parallels. She has the townsfolk dismiss Stockmann’s warnings as fake news. She even shoehorns in Brexit. Having recast Stockmann as a woman called Teresa, Lenkiewicz has her shouting about her ‘mandate’ and telling her opponents she refuses to quit. At times, the evil mayor appears to channel Jacob Rees-Mogg. It’s entertaining enough, but already dated.

She does at least give the play a decent trim, bringing it to below two hours. By the end, I was ready to write off Enemy altogether. Then something odd happened. As the mayor returned to the stage for the curtain call, the stalls erupted with boos and jeers. Had they been engrossed all along or were they just sticking it to the man? Either way I’m sure Ibsen would have been delighted.

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