Sheridan Smith as Hedda Gabler
Published: 27 September, 2012
by ANDREW JOHNSON
Old Vic Theatre
THERE'S a moment in Brian Friel's new version of Ibsen's masterpiece when our cruel but trapped heroine announces she's pregnant.
This is the cue for her nice-but-dull husband Tesman, played by the wonderful Adrian Scarborough, to leap around with farcical joy as his fancy leaps with him from one potential boy's name to another, before realising it might be a girl, and so running through a roster of feminine names.
It's a great piece of theatre, it's very funny. But it jarred considerably with the tone of the play, took away all its carefully crafted tension, and had me reaching for my text to make sure Ibsen actually wrote it.
He didn't. Friel, a great contemporary playwright (who, incidentally, explored the pitfalls of transferring information from one language to another in his 1980 play Translations), must have thought there aren't enough laughs in Ibsen and so he should do something about it.
At the risk of sounding like a sourpus purist, I find it incredible that anyone would seek to tinker with an established classic. You wouldn't try and improve Shakespeare, so why Ibsen? Write a whole new play based on Hedda Gabler, fine. But to add something that was so obviously out of kilter with the play.
It's a pity, because for me it spoiled an other wise excellent production. There are those who would disagree. It earned Scarborough a deserved round of applause, but this too seemed a reaction more fitting to One Man Two Guvnors than a Scandanavian tragedy first published in 1890. (And Richard Bean rewrote the 1743 play Servant of Two Masters to contemporise it as One Man Two Guvnors, rather than just tinkering).
Sheridan Smith is a revelation as Hedda, however. By turns coy, attractive and cruel, she does just enough for us to sympathise with her wicked character: a woman of spirit scared to live her life to the full who so sets about destroying the lives of others out of envy, malice, boredom, who knows?
Darrel D'Silva is dashing and devilish as Judge Brack, a man who effortlessly achieves what Hedda can't - public decency and private depravity. Daniel Lapaine plays the desperate madness of Loevberg with aplomb and Fenella Woolgar perfectly annoying as his anxious married lover.
At the end Hedda is trapped like an insect in the glass reception room of Lez Brotherson's marvellous set as the full extent of the tedium her married life means dawns on her. If a modern audience shudders with her, heaven knows the effect on a late 19th century one.
UNTIL NOVEMBER 10