Review by Amanda Higgin
Photos by Georgia Crowther
Oriel’s College’s own Poor Print had the first set of eyes on this much-anticipated Playhouse production in dress rehearsal. Even without making allowances for the adjustments and polishing that will take place before opening night, Hedda was excellent. A carefully curated, visually stunning, compelling masterwork – it did not disappoint.
The Oxford Playhouse is the largest theatre in the city that a student production can aspire to, so Playhouse shows attract the finest talents and highest ambitions in the university. They also face the greatest challenges, especially when venturing to stage anything except a musical. Tuneful frivolity easily has the power to drag tired students away from their desks for an evening of escapism, but ambitious productions like Hedda must be something special. So, is it?
The narrative covers only a few intense days. Hedda and her husband George have just returned from a 6-month honeymoon, which George spent working on his academic research as much as with his new wife. Hedda is pregnant, not that you will hear anyone say so in so many words, and unhappy. She comes home to a new flat, and, for the duration of the play, never leaves. The other characters come and go from work, parties and house visits, but Hedda is trapped in her front room. As others come and go, she acts upon them through old connections, secrets and impulses in a search for meaning, power and beauty. Once the web she spins becomes tangled, the play reaches its climax.
The OP attracts the finest talent in student theatre, and in Hedda it shows. The design is impeccable, especially Shivaike Shah’s choices as costume designer. Each character is dressed to suit their role, and Hedda’s change from a vulnerable negligée to an imposing and risqué suit particularly impressed me, as it signals an important change in the audience’s perception of her character. The set design is very basic and initially left me underwhelmed, but its very unimpressiveness fulfils its purpose as a backdrop for Hedda’s frustrated ambition. The inbuilt light effects were especially effective, hinting at the internal reality behind Hedda’s words.
Lucy Hayes’s direction was striking in the way it created vivid, visual contrasts. Tense action in the foreground was often heightened by contrast with relaxed interaction in the background, the more distant characters utterly unaware of the developments going on across the stage. The contrast was frequently exacerbated by the necessary secrecy between these two groups, with India Opzoomer especially, as the eponymous Hedda Gabler, skilfully managed the necessary transitions in tone.
Opzoomer is central to the play at every point as its protagonist, and she delivers a performance worthy of that pressure. Her delivery is credible and compelling as she carries off the diverse requirements of the character, sometimes giving the audience access to Hedda’s inner thoughts with only a gesture. Her performance is supported by an equally stellar cast, and I wish I could name each of them. Suffice to say that their portrayals are equally worth seeing.
Lest I seem to suggest that Oscar nominations ought to be in the pipeline, however, one recurring flaw was the execution of interruptions, a common bugbear for actors. That momentary pause between an incomplete line ending and the intended interruption often reminded me that I was watching a play. It was disappointing that this one problem seemed to affect the whole cast, and dulled the shine of what was otherwise an astounding set of performances.
Hedda is an ambitious production, and its execution does justice to its aspirations. I strongly recommend watching for its exploration of the female place in the modern world, skilfully adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 original by Lucy Kirkwood. The drama is painted out in front of you through its design, the small cast present their characters impeccably, and the narrative occasionally hits alarmingly close to home. Hedda is indeed something special.