By Henrik Ibsen
Old Vic Theatre, London SE1, until November 10, 2012
Anna Mackmin’s production of Hedda Gabler is in a new translation by Brian Friel (Mackmin staged Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa here to great acclaim) and it is notable for the casting in the lead of Sheridan Smith, whose star is rising like a rocket.
She deservedly won Olivier Awards and huge praise for her last two contrasting roles, in the musical Legally Blonde and the sombre Rattigan play Flare Path. The next step, she or her agent has dictated, is to take on the role which has assumed the status of a female Hamlet, a necessary hurdle for every actress aspiring to greatness. Alas, while she brings her characteristic intelligence and natural ease to the part, it’s a reading of the role that in the end misfires. Perhaps it is too soon.
Hedda, a fiercely intelligent woman, is being choked by the chains of domesticity, and while Ibsen was no feminist, it’s a landmark part that had a profound influence on the women’s movement and on the representation of female characters on stage. A big burden therefore. Smith approaches Hedda by playing her essentially as a bitch. There is much evidence for this, particularly in her petty cruelties to the servants and her wily manipulation of her hapless husband, George, but it leaves a hollowness at the core to the piece. In the end, if we don’t care for her at a human level, then it’s far more difficult to get an audience to sympathise with the plight of her kind.
The counter balance for Hedda is her twittery academic friend Thea Elvsted, whose hopeless and slavish devotion to Eilert Loevborg gives her a reason for living, being trapped, as she too is, in a loveless marriage of convenience to an elderly magistrate. Often presented as skittish and deluded, here the great Fenella Woolgar steals the play by presenting the first Thea I’ve seen who is a believable, fully rounded character and one ultimately more sympathetic than Hedda. While it’s a great performance, it knocks the piece off-kilter.
Friel’s contribution has been to draw out the human comedy element. Again, this may not suit every-one, but it does bring a welcome lightness to a piece that can often seem like a night of doing homework. Lez Brotherston’s designs lift the piece out of its Nordic gloom and his set is the most beautiful seen in the West End in a long time. He combines a realistic setting, full of clean, white, Swedish woods with a stunning glass atrium, centre stage, which manages to cleverly conceal and reveal at the same time the normally off-stage action. It’s a glorious design solution.
Darrell D’Silva, with a badger-like demeanour, is powerful and slippery as Judge Brack, who enjoys animating the ménage à trois he’s encouraged with a cold detachment. Anne Reid (this woman is wasted in granny parts) is suitably warm-hearted as George’s Aunt Juliana and Adrian Scarborough commits his typical felony, stealing every scene he is in. His George is perhaps a trifle too comical, although it is a joy to watch him continually pose next to Hedda, as if they’re standing for a portrait, or getting into spasms of ecstasy about his favourite slippers, which have been lovingly embroidered by his adored aunt. Ibsen’s handle on the professional jealousies of academia and the cruel workings of the class system at that time are beautifully drawn out here by Mackmin, in what is a production of great style.