The Theatreguide.London Review
Old Vic Theatre Autumn 2012
Brian Friel's 2008 adaptation of Hedda Gabler, used in this fresh Old Vic production, spells out and makes explicit a lot of things Ibsen presented more subtly or allowed his audience to infer.
The result is crystal clear on all points of plot and psychology, but also somewhat limiting, leaving director and actors very little freedom to make choices and audiences very little to think about. It's spoon-fed Ibsen, and even if I agree with much of what's being fed me, I can't help preferring productions that give everyone involved more to do.
(Reminder: a strong-willed woman married to a nonentity, Hedda dreams of having some effect on the world, and finds it by leading another man to what she imagines to be a beautiful and romantic self-destruction.)
The things that Friel spells out range from the relatively minor – Judge Brack's lechery – to the more significant – Hedda's pregnancy – to the absolutely central – the fact that, for all her romantic bravado, Hedda is thoroughly convention-bound and cowardly. All those (and others) are there in Ibsen, but there for us to discover, and depriving us of the process of discovery makes the play simpler and shallower than it is.
Given this text, Darrell D'Silva as Brack has little choice but to figuratively twirl his moustachios in open villainy and salivate lecherously, when other productions have shown that a Brack who is more subtle in his entrapment of Hedda can be far more sinister and chilling.
An actress playing a Hedda who flinches at even the hint of her pregnancy can convey a paranoia about being trapped more effectively than one who has to deal with the open discussion of it.
And a Hedda who doesn't have to confess her cowardice quite so openly and repeatedly can lure us into the belief that she's a feminist heroine too big for her world until we realise the truth for ourselves.
Now, I happen to agree with the reading that says Hedda is a coward with romantic fantasies that are far beyond her reach and therefore dangerous (After all, why is Thea Elvsted in the play except to show that even a mousy little nobody can be more courageous and convention-defying than Hedda?)
But I wish that the admirable actress Sheridan Smith had been allowed more opportunity to present the contradictions within Hedda and guide us to the truth, rather than being limited by a text that gives her only one direction in which to march.
George Tesman is written as a bit of a fool, but other actors and directors have been able to invest him with some dignity and thereby complicate our attitude toward Hedda's disdain for him. But Adrian Scarborough is not allowed to be anything but a fool and auntie's boy, to the extent of giving him a slapstick scene of manically running about the set in joy at the news of the pregnancy.
The one beneficiary of Friel's text is Thea, whose superiority to Hedda is spelled out for us, allowing Fenella Woolgar to dominate and steal scenes other actresses have been unable to make much impression in.
Director Anna Mackmin hasn't guided any of the actors beyond the obvious, and actually compounds the doing-all-the-work-for-us by adding heavy-handed 'movie music' to cue us to the already-clear emotional importance of key moments. (And at what are arguably the two most key moments in the play – the stove scene and the final scene – Paul Englishby's music swells so melodramatically that it drowns out essential dialogue.)
If you have never seen Hedda Gabler, here is a Hedda-lite that you will have no difficulty following. If you have seen the play before, you have almost certainly had a richer, more complex and more involving experience than this one offers.
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