Metatheatre is rarely done well. This is because it’s really quite hard. Theatre, as a medium, is a reflective surface, and there are very few plays–from The Oresteia to Hamlet to Psychosis 4.48–that are completely blind to the fact that there is a giant, screaming gap between the performer and the performed. Theatregoers are often aware of this history, which makes writing something meta and new even harder.
Hedda, after Hedda Gabler gives metatheatre a good crack. There is no faulting the cast or crew for their ambition, theatrical or philosophical. Writer and director Zach Beavon-Collin (SUDS Richard III and Tuesday, and director of next year’s Major production) chose Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler to explore an individuals’ inability to change in a hostile environment, mostly by having the characters struggle against the endless ‘play’ they were involved in.
This is an interesting angle to take, but the script is very muddled. The audience receives few answers to key questions: Who is keeping the characters in the play? Why is Brack [Charlie Jones] so intent on keeping the play going? Moreover, what does any of this add to Hedda’s [Alice Birbara] story?
In Ibsen’s text, Hedda is a powerful, mysterious and unhappy woman with a fondness for her father’s pistols. Her characterisation as a woman of great personal power on stage was revelatory in the 19th Century, even coming from the man who gave us Domestic Abuse 101 (A Doll’s House) and Syphilis for Dummies (Ghosts). Beavon-Collin’s Hedda is a reserved character, lacking much of the dual-wielding bombast of her original. This change left Birbara little character to work with. Even without the play’s meta plot-twist, this casts doubt over the strength of Beavon-Collin’s adaptation. Other performances were solid, with Jones’ menacing Brack and Kalka’s wet George as stand-outs.
Considering this is Robot Sparrow’s debut piece, Hedda’s production value was very high. The Tesman’s apartment was decked out in brand-new furniture and styled such that it could have been a real contender on The Block. Beavon-Collin experimented with filmic staging techniques to the production’s benefit, and the operatic score was reminiscent of epic cinema; think Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra but with IKEA set dressing.
Metatheatre is hard, and I don’t feel that Hedda, after Hedda Gabler gives the audience a lot to think about. But just because metatheatre is hard, doesn’t mean that young companies should not continue to experiment. As far as first productions go, Robot Sparrow has proved that they have a lot of promise. Given time and experience, I expect we will start to see great things.