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NEW YORK TIMES, Arts & Leisure

January 4, 2009


Doesn’t Speak Norwegian. Does Speak Ibsen.




CHRISTOPHER SHINN saw his first Ibsen play when he was 15 and was instantly hooked. “Sam Waterston and Cynthia Nixon did ‘The Master Builder’ in Hartford,” Mr. Shinn, now 33 and an accomplished playwright himself, recalled recently. He found the play both shocking and thrilling, he said. “I remember feeling like I was in the presence of something very dark and very powerful and profound.”

Now, after years of studying Ibsen’s plays and teaching them to his playwriting students at the New School, Mr. Shinn is getting a chance to commune even more closely with his literary hero. He has adapted one of Ibsen’s most popular works, “Hedda Gabler,” for a new production by the Roundabout Theater Company that begins previews on Tuesday. The production, which stars Mary-Louise Parker, is being directed by Ian Rickson, who also directed the recent Broadway production of “The Seagull.”


Adapting a play is not quite the same as doing a new translation, since the writer doing an adaptation may not know the language of the original and may also take more liberties than a typical translator in updating the language for contemporary audiences. In Mr. Shinn’s case, since he does not know Norwegian, he worked from a literal translation of Ibsen’s script and also studied around 20 other adaptations.


“Ibsen is my favorite playwright and the writer I always dreamed about adapting, so I felt like I could do it even though I didn’t speak the language,” Mr. Shinn said. “If it had been Strindberg, I would have had to think about it.”


Mr. Shinn, whose plays include “Where Do We Live” and “Dying City,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, said that he admired Ibsen’s willingness to plumb the darkest aspects of human nature and society.


In the case of “Hedda Gabler” – whose heroine is a bored housewife with a romantic notion of suicide, a possible Electra complex and a dowry of pistols – Ibsen is looking at “the childlike part of us that’s angry, not getting what it wants, and decides then to try to destroy the world,” Mr. Shinn said.


He added, however, that the play was very difficult to do well, noting that he had “never seen a satisfying production of it.”

Part of what makes “Hedda Gabler” difficult, Mr. Shinn explained, is that it falls at a turning point in Ibsen’s career. Previously his plays had been mostly about individuals confronting a corrupt social order. Afterward they were more psychological, about protagonists in conflict with themselves.


“Hedda Gabler” falls somewhere in between. Mr. Shinn said that in adapting the play he wanted to find a balance between the social and the psychological in Hedda’s character, so that she would come across as neither a sadist nor simply a victim of patriarchal oppression. And since, unlike the protagonists of later Ibsen plays, Hedda does not have long monologues about her internal state, “I was also trying to heighten any moment of subjectivity that we do have access to in Hedda.”


Mr. Shinn also wanted to revitalize the language of the play by changing some lines that have always been translated a certain way.

“There are certain things that audiences have heard time and time again,” he said, noting that where the language had gotten dusty he tried to “open the window and let some fresh air in.” And because audiences today have higher shock thresholds than audiences in Ibsen’s time, he felt it was appropriate to, as he put it, “excavate” some social and psychological insights that were present in Ibsen’s text but buried. “The way you honor a radical writer is not to write a conservative adaptation of his work,” he said, summing up his approach.

“Chris managed to take big risks while still staying true to Ibsen,” Ms. Parker said by e-mail, adding that Mr. Shinn’s adaptation made “the emotions more modern without making the text colloquial.”


Mr. Rickson, who as artistic director of the Royal Court Theater in London from 1998 to 2006 produced world premieres of four of Mr. Shinn’s plays, including “Where Do We Live” and “Dying City,” said that he and Mr. Shinn both wanted to treat Ibsen “as a living playwright” rather than “creating a bit of forensic, tasteful museum theater.” He added that Ibsen’s critique of what Mr. Rickson called “a culture of fear based upon competition, envy and investment in material things” seems particularly relevant right now.


To read the full article, click here:  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/04/theater/04taylor.html?_r=1&ref=theater

For more information about Hedda Gabler, click here:  www.roundabouttheatre.org    

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