Keith McErlean, Peter Gaynor and Catherine Walker bring life to their complex roles, with Walker, in particular, excelling in her role as the titular Hedda Gabler. Picture: Ros Kavanagh

IRISH playwright Mark O’Rowe described Hedda Gabler as a “mass of contradictions” and an enigmatic figure so powerful she had endured as a dramatic staple since the play first premiered in 1891.

Such fascination about this theatrical meta-character led O’Rowe to undertake a reworking of the original Henrik Ibsen play, and the fruits of this can be seen at the Abbey Theatre this May.
O’Rowe’s adaptation takes Gabler into the 21st century with great ease. Such a modern play easily lends itself to an updating, and seems most natural.
It is achieved through O’Rowe’s delicate use of language. Gabler, had she been written today, would certainly have used the odd expletive, so volatile is her tormented nature at times.
This, O’Rowe does, but does not overdo; he thereby maintains the shock value of a general’s daughter with pristine manners dressed in impeccable 19th century garb using foul language.
Gabler, played solidly if wanting in nuance by Catherine Walker, returns to the house she chose on a whim after six months honeymooning in Europe.
She does not particularly like the house, but said she wanted to live there during a lull in the conversation with her then future husband.
Though she constantly surprises in her actions and decisions; impulsiveness is a trait threaded through her character as a desperate effort to feel alive.
She is gifted, intelligent, wry and original, but Gabler lives in a time where the only tool she can use to carve a name for herself in the world is a husband.
Of her decision to marry, she says: “I felt I’d been putting it off long enough.”
The husband she has chosen is a dull, unexciting academic. She refers to him by his surname, Tesman, is sorry she married him, and has no attraction to him.
Tesman is played lightly and innocently by Peter Gaynor, and the audience feels an affinity for him right away. Yet the audience also feels deep sympathy for Gabler, as she suffocates under social restriction and the burden of her own difficult psychology.
Like Tesman, the other characters in the play never seem as alive or as real as Gabler. Instead, they have found their groove in the world and are happy enough to plough along. The most interesting of these are Gabler’s old flame, Ejlert Lovborg (Keith McErlean), who mirrors a passionate idealism in Gabler, and Judge Brack (Declan Conlon), who reflects back to Gabler her cruel and manipulating side.
Both think they are akin to Gabler, but neither is. She toys with them all, while urgently looking for an identity and a valid role in life. She is like a child hoping to stumble upon the meaning of life through action.
Lovborg’s helpmeet is Thea Elfsted (Kate Stanley Brennan) has left her magistrate husband to be with the great artistic genius.
She has arduously assisted Lovborg on his latest work on history and is madly devoted to him; a trait dominant in her nature. Yet, Lovborg prefers the savage mystery of Gabler.
In the meantime, the judge seeks to have a “triangular arrangement” in the Tesman household, much to Gabler’s horror.
The Abbey Theatre and Mark O’Rowe have done justice to the Norwegian playwright in this new version of Hedda Gabler, and the two-and-a-half hours fly by.
Yet Ibsen created Hedda Gabler, and therefore deserves most adulation for summoning up something so psychologically primal, wounded and lost in the main character that it is enough to feed future imaginations for centuries to come.
Hedda Gabler runs until May 16 in the Abbey Theatre. Tickets cost from €13 to €45 and are available from the box office at www.abbeytheatre.ie.