In the same way that the recent Broadway smash hit, A Doll’s House, Part 2, celebrates a more liberated Nora, Her Fathers Daughter, opening this month in Prahran, explores another Ibsen classic through a more modern day and gynocentric sensibility.
This adaptation is written by Keziah Warner and directed by Cathy Hunt and promises to turn Ibsen’s original 19th century tale on its head.
“Expect the bones of the story and the full punch of the whole drama in situations translated to the now,” says Hunt. “We kept the time period – the play unfolds across 2 days – so as in the original it keeps the unities of time and space. Names have been shifted – Eilert Lovborg becomes Eli Lovman & Jurgen Tesman becomes George Tesman. In our version Hedda’s father was a Labor Federal politician and her grandfather was a conservative mayor whose former mayoral office was the space we’re performing in. There’s a few surprises for those familiar with Hedda Gabler but due to the faithfulness of Warner’s adaptation they’ll see where each choice or divergence has originated from.”
The first staging of the original work was 1891 but themes are still relevant today. Power, gender, yearning and familial destabilization. are all part of this play that explores power dynamics. “Particularly gendered power dynamics,” says Hunt. “Keziah Warner’s choice to give characters including Tesman, Eli Lovman, Brack & Hedda herself a shared preoccupation with politics and a simmering desire, strongest as undergraduates, to have an impact politically lets us look at how those gendered power divisions play out from an intersectional feminist perspective.”
“It examines the divide between our private and public selves, the assumption that we can control and plan our futures and the way nostalgia for the past inhibits our entering into the now. In particular it draws out a millennial experience of collision with an old world and old systems that don’t function as they need to for the human beings attempting to use them. We are all impeded and weighed down by history.”
In choosing the particular historically loaded space of the Prahran Council Chambers the creatives wanted to invoke those ghosts of the past and let the audience ponder how the structure of colonial Australia based on patriarchal power impacts on us all and particularly on young women who might have one day wanted to be Prime Minister as we attempt to move into some kind of future with real agency.
Hunt attributes much of the success of the adaptation to Warner’s writing style and says: “Keziah Warner’s writing is extremely concentrated, detailed and immediate. It’s also incredibly spare and lean yet still evokes a whole rich world. Her transformation of Ibsen’s classic work into this punchy, funny and powerful text is something that I marvel at. Working on the adaptation, reading various drafts and puzzling out the dramaturgy of the piece together over the summer was so satisfying. Warner worked so fast and so assuredly. She’s a dream writer to work with and I trust this collaboration will not be our last.”
The genesis moment for Hunt as a director came when Cait Spiker, who instigated the project through her company Hotel Now, came to share her ideas about Hedda Gabler and contemporary resonances. “Even though at that time I was busy with other projects and couldn’t take it on, we kept talking, nutting out the kind of Hedda we really wanted to create and bring to life,” says Hunt “The idea of Her Father’s Daughter – one of Ibsen’s alternate titles for his original 1891 work – sprang up. We found our unique space to perform the show in and the pieces began gradually to assemble.”
This has been a long term project for Hunt, and one she is relishing. A self proclaimed obsession, Hunt finds Hedda a wonderful symbol for both hope and frustration.
“Hedda herself and her fervent frustrations caused me to gravitate towards this project – my obsession with this particular play actually extends back to the late 1990’s. I was cast to play her in a York University production that never happened as the director’s father died after just a few rehearsals. That thwarted experience is part of what drew me to want to work on this project.”
“Hedda Gabler’s uncompromising wrongness, her refusal to, her inability to slip or fit into the spaces offered to her – reveals how judgement waits for us all. How society requires us to swap our unique specificity for overall validity. How for those people, particularly those women who can’t manage this transaction – the confirmation of identity which society offers to them as daughter, wife, mother, leader is continually dangled and withheld.”
Hunt is drawn to works about the interplay of power and vulnerability. ” Our shared human sense of being exposed and weak and how we cover this up. Also in the dismantling of archaic power structures and the questioning of the underpinnings of these – whether of so called ‘family values’ the politicians love to trot out around election time is really what underpins us or this country or whether we’ve actually based on false premises.”
She is also very interested in what she calls ‘our shadow selves’ – how we wish to be seen by others and what we prefer to hide. “Complication and ambivalence fascinates me as a director,” she says. “As does women’s own lived experience and finding a space to utter that. Hedda herself is a magnificent mix of contradictions, affections, denials, devotions and fury. She is child and woman, creature cornered and person in an untenable situation all at once. She has agency but not enough to truly change her life then is blamed for the little she does exert.”
Hunt acknowledges the epic nature of the play thus leading rehearsals to sometimes veer towards the intense, but the creatives have aimed to try a lot of approaches to keep exploring the dynamics and retain the playfulness in the work.
“We were working on a scene early on in the script where Hedda’s old university boyfriend Eli Lovman drops round on her and new husband George Tesman,” she says. “I asked both actors (George & Eli) to work on impressing Hedda and the results were extreme! They involved competitive press-ups. Shirts came off!
I had a rehearsal with Fabio Motta (Brack) & Cait Spiker (Hedda) of the scene towards the end when she discovers that her first love has done something she hoped he would do. I asked her to use a special object to stand in for her idea of Eli and his action – she chose a vial of perfume. Fabio had the task of persuading her the object was less precious than she thought and getting her to hand it over. This exercise revealed and illuminated amazingly what keeps shifting in this complex scene by giving the actors a very specific physical focus.”
For Hunt, this is a cracking drama and to view it becomes an absolutely unique chance to experience this powerful work from within. “You are a fly on the wall, implicated in the action, watching as it all unfolds” she says. “The four acts take place across three historic spaces so the audience will follow the action and move three times. Immersive but not interactive – compellingly intimate.”
May 22 – June 3
Prahran Council Chambers