Hedda Gabler becomes Heather Gardner as Ibsen comes to Birmingham, discovers Roz Laws .
The original play was set in Norway in the 1890s – but now it’s been moved to suburban Birmingham in the Swinging Sixties.
Henrik Ibsen’s classic Hedda Gabler becomes Heather Gardner thanks to Birmingham writer Robin French.
His new production is to be staged by Birmingham Rep, the theatre where he saw his first Ibsen play – which convinced him to become a writer.
He was 17 in 1996 when he went to see A Doll’s House with Geraldine Somerville and Hilton McRae.
“It made me fall in love with writing,” says Robin, now 34.
“I couldn’t get the evening out of my head. I bored my friends about it for days afterwards. That production made me want to write.”
Robin grew up in Edgbaston, 15 minutes’ walk from Centenary Square. As a teenager, he spent hours waiting for a bus at the stop on Broad Street opposite the Rep.
He also often passed Neville Chamberlain’s house, just two minutes’ walk away from his own. The former Prime Minister lived there with his wife Anne and family for 40 years – and now it’s where Heather Gardner is set.
It’s not a huge step from the original, as Ibsen’s tale was set in the house of the widow of a former Norwegian cabinet minister.
In Hedda Gabler, our heroine, the daughter of an aristocratic general, has just returned to her villa in Oslo after her honeymoon.
She is married to academic Jorgen Tesman but it becomes clear she has never loved him. The reappearance of Tesman’s rival and her former flame throws their lives into disarray.
In Heather Gardner, it’s September 1962. Beautiful socialite Heather (played by Elisabeth Hopper), enigmatic and seductive, returns from her honeymoon to her dream home in upmarket Edgbaston, but nothing is turning out as planned.
Heather soon finds herself in a spiral of self-destruction, caught between her old flame, Alec Lambart and the clutches of predatory solicitor Peregrine Brand.
“I was surprised by how many elements of the original seemed to fit this transition to Birmingham and the 1960s,” says Robin.
“When you see Hedda Gabler set in 1890, you can feel a bit removed from it, thinking ‘Oh yes, they were terrible to women in Norway in the 1890s’. I knew I wanted to bring it closer to the audience by bringing the play more up to date.
“Now it’s set just before the Beatles, with the ending of the Macmillan era, and it’s still weird and disturbing.
“I had worked with Roxana Silbert before when she was with the touring company Paines Plough. I bumped into her in the bar of the Royal Court not long after she had got the job as artistic director of the Rep, and she said ‘I’m commissioning you to do a play’. It’s a real dream come true for me.
“I went away and came up with the idea. I was thinking of setting a Chekhov play in Birmingham at first, but that was too hard as they are all set in the country with Moscow miles away.
“So then I thought of Ibsen. Hedda Gabler is so suburban, it really does fit Edgbaston.
“It’s such a thrilling and strange story – mysterious, dangerous and darkly funny.
“I hope, like a cover version of a great song, that Heather Gardner offers the audience an enjoyable new perspective on Ibsen’s genius.”
A former King Edward’s School pupil and Cambridge University graduate, Robin’s debut play, Bear Hug, won the Royal Court Young Writer’s Festival.
He’s also recently co-written the hit BBC3 sitcom Cuckoo with his best friend from school, Kieron Quirke.
Robin was a seasoned theatre-goer at a young age, thanks to having an English teacher for a mother who took him on her school trips to the theatre.
He remembers: “I was driven to the Crescent, the mac, the RSC and Birmingham School of Speech and Drama, to watch plays alongside loud classes of kids I didn’t know.
“But it was the Rep that always felt like the centre of the map.
“My mum and dad remember going to Pinter and other thrilling, experimental late-night shows at Station Street after last orders.
“I saw Rep productions of Macbeth and Julius Caesar. I remember Simon Callow booming through The Alchemist. I remember coming back to Birmingham to see Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in the studio.
“But The Doll’s House was the show that changed everything for me.”
Now Robin is seeing his work on stage in his home city for the first time. It fits in well with Roxana Silbert’s aim of championing local talent at the Rep.
She says: “I hadn’t quite clocked Robin was from Birmingham when I worked with him before, but when I met him again he started to talk about all the things he had seen at the Rep and how important The Dolls’ House was to him.
“I told him to write something for us and he set out to write a classic play that would put Birmingham accents on stage. He really wanted to hear those accents and not in comedy roles.
“Heather Gardner is a very faithful adaptation of the play but frees it from Norwegian gloom and Victorian patriotism.
“I’m pleased to say we’ve now made Robin our Rep writer in residence, so we’ll be hearing more from him.”
* Heather Gardner plays the Old Rep in Birmingham from March 15 to 28. For tickets ring 0121 236 4455 or go to www.birmingham-rep.co.uk.