sun 04/12/2016

Hedda Gabler, Old Vic | reviews, news & interviews

Hedda Gabler, Old Vic

Hedda Gabler, Old Vic

Ibsen's heroine draws new depths from the West End's sweetheart

Marriage of (in)convenience: George (Adrian Scarborough) and Hedda (Sheridan Smith) exchange tense pleasantriesJohan Persson

Hedda Gabler – the doomy tragedy, the one with the pistol, the “female Hamlet”. We all know the score when it comes to Ibsen. All, that is, except apparently for Sheridan Smith, who recently admitted in an interview that she hadn’t heard of the play before she was asked to take on the lead. It may be a world away from the buxom bar-maids and big-hearted bimbos that have become Smith’s trademark, but the double Olivier Award-winner makes light work of a role that carries the weight of theatre’s greatest actresses.

Smaller than almost everyone else on stage, and disappearing into sofas, melting into glass-panelled walls, or just willing herself into invisibility while rigidly still in a chair, Smith’s Hedda hasn’t the joyous physical authority of a Blanchett or a Best. This heroine’s self-dramatising manipulations come unwillingly – and all the more desperately for that. Denied the escape she desires (Mackmin’s silent prologue sets freely billowing curtains against closing doors – a visual idée fixe that haunts the rest of the action) she waits and watches, lashing out only when provoked, like the huntress Brian Friel’s new translation casts her as.

It’s a production that isn’t scared to play for laughs

The opening is all rictus smiles, gripped and pinched into agonies of politeness with Anne Reid’s prattling Aunt Juliana, relieved only by the swift wit and repartee that can often find itself neglected among all the tragedy. It’s a production that isn’t scared to play for laughs, lacing the biggest of these (directed at George’s ecstatic response to the news of his wife’s pregnancy) with sugared poison, as we see Smith’s Hedda in the background gearing up for her own “beautiful, final gesture”.

While the early scenes of acid retorts and adamantine sharpness feel at times just the tiniest bit over-worked, there is nothing fussy about Smith’s instinctual release in the latter half of the play. Mackmin and Friel’s pacing allows for a steadily rising acceleration that bursts into brutal climax almost before we realise it. The monotone gabblings of the opening give way to a gradually extending range of emotion and expression, to which the final bloody act feels like the most natural conclusion – social conformity and suppression giving way to the assertion of self.

Mackmin surrounds Smith with a serious supporting cast, not least among which is Fenella Woolgar (pictured right with Smith) as Thea Elvsted. Aided by Friel’s additions, the nervy Thea offers a more worthy foil to Hedda, a viable alternative vision of future womanhood rather than a figure of fun. Woolgar’s physical tension and absolute discomfort sits well against Smith’s control, her careful, consciously swaying walk.

Leading the men is Adrian Scarborough as George Tesman. If there is a weakness in this production it’s that we can’t quite understand how his overgrown schoolboy of an academic, soft and sensitive to all the women in his life, could ever have married Smith’s Hedda. Ibsen’s explanation always feels a little token and seems no less so in Friel’s hands, yet perhaps Scarborough’s wishful (and wilful) blindness, his eager re-interpretation of Hedda’s violent act of destruction, goes some way toward furnishing an answer.

While Daniel Lapaine’s Loevborg (pictured left with Smith) generates little heat with Smith, his vacant self-involvement allows this to become even more a self-wrought tragedy. This isn’t, we see, about love or even infatuation, simply a calculated exercise in control. But if ever this exercise threatens to get too heavy we always have Darrell D’Silva’s devilish Judge Brack, endowed here with a fondness for American neologisms, whose levity lend a sinister edge to the seriousness of his intentions.

A few moments jar in their contemporary spoken rhythms, but Friel’s translation also achieves some elegant felicities. “I had danced myself to a standstill”, explains Hedda of her unexpected marriage to Tesman; “You burrowed into me” accuses Loevborg of Hedda’s parasitical early attention to him. It’s a shame though that Simon Baker’s sound design can’t match it for musicality. While onstage melodrama is largely implied rather than stated, exiled to silent transitional moments or deferred until the very close, a heavy 19th-century soundtrack tacks lead weights onto Smith’s delicate inflections, loading the drama – and the pistol – unfairly and before time.

This is a classic Hedda Gabler with an unexpectedly classic heroine. Smith, playing against type, plays with the grain of her skill, drawing out the nimble, mercurial aspects of a woman we are almost convinced is a pure villain. In that “almost”, though, lives a world of fertile uncertainty, and one that Smith inhabits with relish. She may be the nation’s theatrical sweetheart, but Sheridan Smith makes for one hell of a bitch.

  • Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic until 10 November

Follow Alexandra Coghlan on Twitter

Mackmin and Friel’s pacing allows for a steadily rising acceleration that bursts into brutal climax almost before we realise it

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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