Hedda (Queensland Theatre)
Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre
November 10 – December 8
As its title suggests, Queensland Theatre’s “Hedda” is an adaption by Melissa Bubnic of Henrik Ibsen’s Norwegian realist classic “Hedda Gabler”. The original story is of a scheming Hedda, who, just into a marriage of convenience, decides to destroy the life of an old lover back in town, jealous of his love affair with another.
The original story is pretty much still there in this take, although the fresh imagining is outrageously modernised. This is now a tale set on the gaudy Gold Coast of Bundy-and-rum mentality, mangos and so-suburban million-dollar mega-mansions, paid for by meth. And it is far from subtle, saturated with swearing and Queensland boganisms from the very first scene.
Just as the original play takes place entirely in the Tesman’s living room, “Hedda” plays out completely in the backyard poolside area of Hedda (Danielle Cormack) and George’s (Jason Klarwein) ocean-side mansion. The spare staging provides a blinding white backdrop that both captures the Coast’s ‘cash, splash and trash’ and becomes canvas to the colour of the cashed-up-bogan attire of leopard print and Hawaiian shirts.
Just back from a cultured honeymoon in Europe, daughter of a decorated war hero, Hedda is not only beautiful, but bored. The university-educated lawyer and privileged southerner is ambitious only in quest to win a state government tender, willing to risk the consequences of an increased profile, which puts her at more than just cultural odds with her new husband’s crime syndicate family, for their construction and security business ventures are but veneers of their core drug interests and corrupt council dealings.
In a storyline that could have been straight out of “Underbelly”, we soon learn that loyalty brings rewards, but also paranoia. Indeed, a lot of time is spend establishing the context of the world and its characters, at the expense perhaps of the blood-soaked tale’s later more gripping human dramas. Still, tensions are evident from early on, despite none of the characters being particularly likeable. (Though performances present them as more than just the sinister characters they could easily have been).
Klarwein is powerful as the vibrant Jason, fearful of being sidelined in the business by just-out-of-prison Løvborg (Jimi Bani), committed to his family and wanting to both please and control his (initially at least) immature, demanding and self-indulgent wife. This was one of my favourite of his performances; he dominates scenes by his presence, as a man driven by power and pride.
There are many strong performances from within the deluxe cast. Almost unrecognisable, Andrea Moore is deliciously uncouth as George’s gutter-mouthed Aunt Julia, suspicious of Hedda and her people as one who has never herself been further than Bali, let alone to Europe. Although crass, her observations and insults are witty and clever, however, rapid-fire dialogue means that the plentiful audience laughter is sometimes at the expense of following speech.
Bridie Carter gives an ultimately emotionally-gripping performance as the vulnerable Thea. Daughter of an unseen crime leader father she lives a quiet life in Byron, recovering from addiction until her violent partner reappears. She makes Thea’s story tragically compelling, however, it still is paled to that of our titular anti-hero.
While Cormack’s Hedda is certainly enigmatic, she goes from being horribly malicious and manipulative to formidable feminist firecracker so easily that it’s difficult to determine the core of her character. And her claims to have worked too hard to be owned by a man emerges more as a self-serving monologue afterthought than ongoing thematic motivation. Connection with the story is also distanced by too much subtly around her former relationship and the lack of an ongoing sense of her entrapment.
While this Hedda has some agency, she seems to want power for its own sake rather than for a particular purpose. She is unsympathetic, with problems of her own making, however, while she is never really vulnerable, there is still enough of Isben evident to recognise the work’s honour of its origins amongst its powerful, in-your-face contemporary voice. The juxtaposition of these ideas is probably going to polarise people. Many of the Monday night subscription crowd, for example, were not particularly impressed and potential audience members need heed warnings about its strong coarse language, adult themes and graphic imagery, before heading in to form their own opinions.