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"She could set the world alight - but she’s not allowed, so she sets fire to people’s hair"

Actress Catherine Walker talks about playing Hedda Gabler.

‘You can’t play Hedda Gabler and not give something from part of your soul. You have to feel what she feels.’ – Catherine Walker

Catherine Walker as Hedda in Abbey Theatre's new version of Ibsen's classic by writer Mark O'Rowe Pic  Ros Kavanagh

ON THE SURFACE, Hedda Gabler might not seem to have much in common with Hollywood darling Angelina Jolie.

Gabler is a Norwegian newlywed, a fictional character concocted by the playwright Henrik Ibsen back in the late 1880s.

Angelina Jolie? Well, we are all very familiar with her story.

But when Irish actress Catherine Walker (who you may have seen in TV shows The Clinic or Critical, or films Leap Year or Patrick’s Day) was tasked with playing Hedda Gabbler in the play of the same name – which is currently on the Abbey stage – she turned to modern-day celebrities for inspiration.

Who is Hedda Gabler?

Gabler is young, possibly pregnant, and newly married to a reliable scholar, a man who she’s not in love with.

She’s a woman struggling with her identity, trapped in a life she doesn’t want to be in, who is willing to go to extremes to try and break her way out.

And her only way out might be deadly.

Objectified and trapped 

Nickelodeon's 28th Annual Kids' Choice Awards - California Source: AP/Press Association Images

As she scoured the script, Walker began to draw parallels between Gabler and modern-day celebrities.

She thought of how she knows people who are in that position, about “how your life does become quite imprisoned” behind metal gates in a big house in LA.

She saw Gabler as:

A Jennifer Aniston character, Angelina Jolie, who we project things onto and they play into this image. And that’s what’s kind of happened to Hedda all her life, she’s objectified and she is the celebrity who everybody wants to have bit of without ever knowing who she is.

Others think of her as “just something to be touched and she doesn’t have anything to say, what would she have to say”.

There’s a huge streak of feminism here – perhaps with hindsight, given that Ibsen might not have used that phrase himself. “I think it will always be relevant, and that isn’t just from a feminist standpoint,” said Walker.

It’s an iconic role for actresses, with Ingrid Bergman and Diana Rgg playing Gabler at different stages.

“You can’t go into something going ‘she’s iconic, I’m playing an iconic role, because it’s death, and terrifying, and impossible. So I kind of stayed away from that,” she said.

‘I read the script straight through, barely breathing’

Declan Conlon and Catherine Walker  in Abbey Theatre's new version of Ibsen's classic by writer Mark O'Rowe Pic  Ros Kavanagh

She has seen her share of scripts throughout her long career as an actress, but when Walker first got her hands on O’Rowe’s script for Hedda Gabler, she remembers “reading it straight through, and barely breathing”.

The rhythm is “an absolute bastard to get right - when you’re off it, you know”, but when you’re in the flow, it works.

Walker would do a day of rehearsal and then a two-hour line learn to make sure she nailed the part.

‘She does horrendous things to people’

hedda gabler

The play ends tragically, but Walker believes it’s about “investigating what it is to be alive, rather than death”.

“I find her quite charming,” she said of Gabler, calling her ”a mystery to herself”.

Yet she does kind of incomprehensible things. I think that kind of intelligence and sharpness and energy, you can’t help but be attracted to it, even though she does some horrendous things to people.

Hedda gets undermined and manipulated. “She could set the world alight, she’s just not allowed to, so she sets fire to people’s hair,” said Walker.

She has all of that that intelligence, and there’s nowhere for it to go. ‘Get pregnant and you’ll be happy’ – [when] she’s pregnant she’s terrified that she doesn’t have the connection.

Is it easy to separate herself from the characters she plays? “I can’t really separate, I can’t,” said Walker. “I have to emotionally connect to what I’m doing.”

I do have to feel what they feel. I’m not really interested in getting on stage and not going through the emotions.

Often her emotions “get wrapped up in theirs - you often don’t notice until it’s over”. She tries to find balance, not walking around all day ‘being Hedda Gabler’.

Source: ReelDealShowreel/YouTube

Having starred in a wide range of TV and theatre projects, from action flicks to intense treading of the boards, she’s open to any good opportunities that come her way.

When she does get a new role, or finds herself shooting an Uzi for a TV movie, she thinks back to her drama school days, and how she’d never imagined how things would pan out.

“I am a travelling player, I don’t like to be tied down to one place for too long,” she said, and with that was off for rehearsal.

Hedda Gabler is at the Abbey until 16 May. Tickets: €13 – €45, concession €13 – €25. For more details, or booking, visit the Abbey Theatre website. 

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