sat 22/10/2016

Hedda Gabler, Old Vic | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

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.

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



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