A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 5 - Winter 2012-13

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Hedda Gabler
reviewed by John McRae

Old Vic, London, September – November 2012

New version by Brian Friel, Director Anna Mackmin


As with Hamlet, there must be as many ways of playing Hedda as there are actresses to play her. There will be a little less freedom to play around with the setting – go for realism or go abstract being the basic dilemma.

Sheridan Smith has emerged in the past couple of years as a stunningly accomplished actress, though she is the first to claim she is “untrained”: she did not even know about the play when the director offered her the part, and had to check it out online. But she has won several major Best Actress Awards for such different material as the musicals Legally Blonde and last year’s superb revival of Terence Rattigan’s wartime drama Flare Path, and is clearly headed for a glittering career in the big female roles.

This is a gloriously well cast, designed and directed production. Lez Brotherston’s glistening set, full of open spaces and back rooms, manages to seem open and airy as well as an imprisoning set of cages. Hedda wanders through the night set at the very opening, and establishes with one directorial touch the emptiness and frustration she feels at being brought to this house she only ever praised on a whim. And from the outset, the audience knows it is permissible to laugh: Mackmin has cast actors who can find the sad, subtle humour in every scene. Anne Reid is glorious as Aunt Ju-Ju, and Darrell D’Silva excellently bluff yet poignant as Judge Brack. This is London casting at its best.

Adrian Scarborough plays Tesman as a rather dry stick, bowled over by the fact that Hedda should marry him, but so self-absorbed he sees none of her frustrations, fears and fantasies. Yet, in a nice directorial touch, any time another character appears, he puts his arm around her proprietorially: possession is nine points of the law. So her other suitors, Eilert Loevborg and Judge Brack, both of whom she flirts with wonderfully, clearly have little hope. The flirtation is an end in itself for Hedda, and the ’madness’ that overtakes her gradually goes more and more out of her control.

The revelation of this production is Thea Elvsted, played by Fenella Woolgar. ‘Addicted to anxiety’ is the phrase Brian Friel’s version uses to describe her, but instead of, as often, being played as a submissive tool of Loevborg, she is here not only his ‘inspiration’, but the driving force behind his restored creativity. And at the end it is clear she will do the same for Tesman, moving on from Loevborg just as she moved on from her own husband in Trondheim.

Thea thereby becomes another example of the selfish/selfless female character that Ibsen so revels in creating, and as such, she makes a wonderful contrast not only to Hedda but also to Ju-Ju, with her need for someone to look after, now that Irina has died. Death seems not to touch Thea – her ‘courage’ is of a different stamp from Hedda’s.

Hedda’s most destructive acts – giving Loevborg the gun, burning his manuscript, and then shooting herself, do not quite have the air of tragic inevitability (and strange ‘courage’) they sometimes have. I fear perhaps that Sheridan Smith is just a little lacking in the maturity that would give her classic status in the role. The actress is 31, and looks younger (rather like a young Vivien Leigh, in fact).

The greatest Hedda of our time, Maggie Smith, in the stunning abstract red production by Ingmar Bergman in 1970, was 36 when she tackled the role. The other indispensable one, for me, is the 1950s TV version starring Tallulah Bankhead, which although edited drastically, packed a great punch and allowed Hedda to be knowing, manipulative, and desperate all at once. (It is on YouTube.) The actress was 54.

Glenda Jackson’s 1976 film performance, directed by Trevor Nunn was calculatedly unsympathetic, and as a result, worthy and stolid, rather than tragic. The actress was 40.

Does the age matter? The same could be asked of Hamlet – and John Gielgud played on in the role into his 50s. Sheridan Smith’s Hedda looks and acts quite a lot younger than her husband or any of her other putative lovers; she comes across as more child-like than knowing. The depth of her famous “bored” reaction to her honeymoon brought to mind Gillian Anderson’s fabulous Lady Dedlock in the BBC’s recent Bleak House: now there’s potentially great Hedda.

The London critics did not like Brian Friel’s new version of the play. He does indeed flesh out a few things in Tesman’s character and in Judge Brack’s “Americanisms”, but he retains Loevborg’s “vine leaves in his hair” which have been out of favour in some recent versions.  It is a lively, occasionally anachronistic but very sympathetic version, and does great service to the original.

Above all, what was pleasing about this excellent production was the audience: the vast majority were young, quite possibly studying the play at school or college, but also a lot of Sheridan’s fans of her TV work. They were rapt throughout and cheered the show to the rafters at the end. That they see an Ibsen play as enjoyable, moving, and relevant is an achievement that defies any amount of carping criticism.