Found in translation

Fresh from directing Mary Poppins, Richard Eyre is staging his own version of Ibsen's classic Hedda Gabler. It's not such a big step from bossy nanny to wilful wife, he tells Paul Taylor
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The future scholarly study that sets out to chart the influence of Hello! magazine on high culture is likely to be thin to the point of emaciation. But it will certainly have to include the following example of the magazine's inadvertent fertilising power. The director Sir Richard Eyre was leafing through Hello! in a dentist's waiting-room (at least, that's what he claims - I cherish the suspicion that the former artistic director of the National Theatre is, in fact, an avid regular reader). His eye fell on an interview with "one of those vaguely posh, tormented young women, who announced, 'I've always had a talent for boredom.'"

The future scholarly study that sets out to chart the influence of Hello! magazine on high culture is likely to be thin to the point of emaciation. But it will certainly have to include the following example of the magazine's inadvertent fertilising power. The director Sir Richard Eyre was leafing through Hello! in a dentist's waiting-room (at least, that's what he claims - I cherish the suspicion that the former artistic director of the National Theatre is, in fact, an avid regular reader). His eye fell on an interview with "one of those vaguely posh, tormented young women, who announced, 'I've always had a talent for boredom.'"

A flash of insight made him link the benighted creature to a rather more formidable phenomenon: Hedda Gabler, the terminally mismatched Ibsen heroine, whose prodigious capacity for marital ennui fills the play that bears her maiden name as its title with a crackling, dangerous static. By benign coincidence, Eyre happened that very night to see the actress Eve Best in Howard Davies's excellent NT production of Mourning Becomes Electra. There, he reckoned, was his ideal Hedda. The synchronicity moved him to re-examine "a play that previously I had always felt quite distanced from". Eyre's production, now in preview at the Almeida, uses his own expertly nuanced version of the Ibsen drama, which, not speaking Norwegian, he has developed from a literal translation.

Having refused, throughout a career largely spent in the subsidised theatre, to take the Lloyd Webber shilling or to accept financially tempting offers such as the chance to direct Les Misérables ("I just couldn't get it up for the music"), this constantly self-questioning man recently got into bed with a lucrative, flying musical nanny by the name of Mary Poppins. It demonstrates his good taste that he waited for the right, creditable project before laying hands on the über-pension plan.

And it's typical of him that he managed to steer the resulting Disney/Cameron Mackintosh production to rave reviews and box-office heaven with a degree of psychological sensitivity as well as stage-seizing chutzpah. For example, the children in his version are far more plausibly damaged and self-protectively snobbish products of parental neglect than their movie forerunners. They don't respond to the Poppins regime in identical fashion or at the same speed, as witness the shrewd dramatic touches that defuse any risk of mawkishness in the "Feed the Birds" sequence.

With Ibsen's play, he is swapping one redoubtable female for another of earlier vintage. I wonder how the reluctantly pregnant Hedda would have coped if Mary Poppins had landed on her doorstep. "Well, I suspect that Mary Poppins would think she had arrived 28 years too late," laughs Eyre, who infers from the text that Hedda - a general's daughter who has been bequeathed only his guns and mysteriously sullied reputation - suffered the loss of her mother in childbirth. "Mary would have had to be there right from the start to have been any help. The adult Hedda would interrogate her and get very, very frustrated. Yes, I think Mary would be more than a match for her..."

No one, we agree, had ever put a woman like Hedda on stage before Ibsen: "Nor has anyone since," Eyre says. She's a bundle of contradictions: maddening, sane, wilful, arrogant, impulsive, cowardly, on heat yet frigid, intrepid and yet held back by the cowardice often found in bullies.

After the huge scale of Poppins (which was "like organising D-Day"), the director is enjoying the chamber scale of this piece and of working with a handful of fine actors (the cast boasts Iain Glen and Benedict Cumberbatch). As the heir to a long line of military Eyres, he understands the milieu that has Hedda in its clutches. "It's an ethos I've been running away from all my life - that sense of having been disenfranchised, yet still feeling thoroughly entitled." One blackly comic contrast, though, is that his own hard-drinking, womanising father was "almost preternaturally indifferent to public opinion", whereas the apparently nonconformist Hedda so dreads scandal. It makes sense, though: she has no money of her own, and social death would mean financial ruin.

Eyre is a director who can write better than many professional writers, as proven by Utopia and Other Places and National Service, the diaries that chart, with sometimes painful candour, the difficulties of running a flagship institution such as the National Theatre if you are one of nature's self-doubters. It's obvious from his writings that Eyre has a very good ear. That is richly evident, too, in his version of Hedda Gabler.

"The business of translating is so like directing," he says, talking of making the dialogue "resonate at the right frequencies" for a contemporary audience. The play contains some brilliantly dramatised passages of deadly, flirtatious brinkmanship between the bored Hedda and the charismatic Judge Brack, a "fixer" who fancies installing himself as her lover and who will not baulk at blackmail to achieve this end. Eyre's version gives the erotic insinuation and creepy insidiousness of these passages a wonderfully fresh, goose-bump-inducing suggestiveness. Take Ibsen's brilliant image of Hedda's married life as like being trapped in the kind of railway carriage she was often stuck in on honeymoon. The alternatives? To "jump off and stretch your legs" (as Brack puts it in Eyre's translation) or to let another man into the compartment. "No, there'll always be someone who's..." Hedda hesitates. Brack interjects: "Watching your step?" His completion of her thought is like a lascivious cocked eyebrow. And, in Eyre's finely judged phrasing, it also comes across as a half-veiled threat. (In the literal translation, it's "watching your legs".) Brack becomes a wet-lipped voyeur and a sharp-eyed, hypocritical arbiter of her conduct: a dreadful combination.

Eyre is not a man inclined to rest on his laurels. Just looking at his exhausting schedule makes you want to lie down for a nice rest. Last year, for example, he directed the movie Stage Beauty (about Ned Kynaston, whose stock-in-trade of playing female roles was usurped by the advent of actresses after the Restoration) and Mary Poppins - fitting the translation of Hedda Gabler in between. On the stocks is filming a possible movie treatment of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement.

Tantalisingly, he lets drop that last year he tried to write an original play. "It's three-quarters unwritten," he smiles, with characteristic diffidence. Another way of putting that is that it is a quarter written. It would be a shame (and our loss) if Richard Eyre allowed himself to become too busy with other things to complete it.

'Hedda Gabler', The Almeida, London N1 (020-7359 4404; www.almeida.co.uk), tonight to 30 April

Comments