Sandy Pritchard-Gordon

Sandy Pritchard-Gordon
Theatre Blog

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Hedda Gabler at The Old Vic

Sheridan Smith is everywhere at the moment and I can see why she’s every Casting Director’s pick.  A chameleon actress, she is as believable as the “tart with a heart” as she is General Gabler’s daughter in the Old Vic’s production of Hedda Gabler.  This is a version by Brian Friel and it is imbued with much humour, especially in the first act.  Although I applaud any play that mixes tragedy with humour (after all there is comedy to be found in virtually any situation) there was the odd moment on Monday night when I felt Mr. Friel strayed a little bit into the modern day, especially when Judge Brack, convincingly played by Darrell D’Silva, broke into his Americanisms.  But that’s a minor bitch at what is, on the whole, an excellent interpretation of one of Ibsen’s famous plays.

Sheridan Smith’s Hedda comes across right from the start as rather unpleasant and a difficult woman with which to empathise.  Her new husband, George Tesman, brilliantly brought to life by the wonderful Adrian Scarborough, is a far more sympathetic character in this production by Anna Mackmin.  Irritating, yes, but devoted to his new bride and generous to a fault when it comes to her wants and needs.  He is also incredibly funny and the scene where he goes into raptures about his embroidered slippers is absolutely hilarious.  Unfortunately his warmth and intelligence is so not enough for the discontented Hedda.  She often treats him with palpable dislike and so believable is Sheridan Smith that I often found myself wincing at her behaviour towards him.  Having perfected little knowing smiles that not so much hint of sarcasm as shout it from the hilltops, she keeps us in no doubt that this lady knows what she’s doing and is very much intent upon doing it.  Meanwhile her attitude towards Tesman’s Aunty Ju-Ju (the always excellent Anne Reid) and Bertha the maid (Buffy Davis) is one of malevolent disdain.  This schoolgirl bully hasn’t learnt that that type of behaviour is unacceptable.

A contemporary from school, Thea Elvsted (excellently brought to life by Fenella Woolgar) fares no better at the hands of this Hedda Gabler and one almost expects her to reprise the role of hair pulling school girl from hell at any moment during their conversations.  Thea’s nervous anxiety whilst in Hedda’s company is touchingly real, although there is more to this independent “wronged” woman than meets the eye and this becomes apparent at the end of the play.

As a result of this, I find it hard to reconcile this Hedda as a victim, trapped in a suffocating marriage to a man she doesn’t love.  How does such a forceful character allow herself to accept the hand of a man so obviously unsure of women in general and Hedda in particular?  But then her father, whose portrait looms large in the middle of Lez Brotherston’s magnificent set, is obviously a dominating force, introducing his young daughter to guns and horses at a very young age but, arguably very little else.  Perhaps he had a hand in orchestrating her doomed marriage?  Maybe she was pregnant?  The reason is not made clear.  What is clear though is that Sheridan Smith does excellently convey signs of Hedda’s regret at the behaviour she is unable to curtail, whilst the tears she sheds when Tesman rejoices the news of her pregnancy are so, so real.

A more obvious source for her affection is the love of Thea’s life, Tessman’s academic rival, Eilert Loevborg (Daniel Lapaine).  A reformed alcoholic, thanks to the love and attention of Mrs. Elvsted, his meeting with Hedda after a long lapse is one of repressed emotion.  Whether sincere or not, we’re certainly left with the impression that his subsequent demise, ultimately engineered by Hedda, is the result of the latter’s jealousy at his relationship with her married friend.

Lez Brotherston’s set with it’s enormous glass walls and billowing curtains and Mark Henderson’s lighting which brilliantly evokes sunshine that is rarely allowed to permeate the gloom of this unhappy home all help to convey impending doom.  When the disaster arrives, we’re left in no doubt as to what has happened.  No off- stage death in this different, but ultimately satisfying production of Hedda Gabler.

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