Old Vic Theatre, London, 5 September – 10 November 2012
Author: Henrik Ibsen in a version by Brian Friel
Director: Anna Mackmin
Cast includes: Darrell D’Silva, Buffy Davis, Daniel Lapaine, Anne Reid, Adrian Scarborough, Sheridan Smith, Fenella Woolgar
Hedda Gabler is the sort of play one felt obliged to see as a sixth former. The kind of thing ones parents and grandparents say is a “classic” – static, endless, unfunny. Think again. As directed by Anna Mackmin – one of the least well-known but most consistent British female directors – and performed by an outstanding ensemble cast, Hedda Gabler becomes a domestic character comedy with a dark underbelly rather than, as so often, a bleak Ibsen melodrama with a comic seasoning.
Legally Blonde’s Sheridan Smith plays Hedda, back from a sixth month honeymoon with her ever-positive older husband George, a man long on words, short on interest (Hedda’s gabbler, if you will) played by the ever-brilliant Adrian Scarborough. As his aunt Juju (played touchingly by Anne Reid) and various others visit, including a writer with whom she has previously shared affections, Hedda moves from corseted frustration to overwhelming sadness. “People can learn to live with what they can’t change,” Darrell D’Silva’s flirty Judge Brock tells her. “Hedda Gabler can’t” she replies. The journey for her may be tragic but in Brian Friel’s witty translation there is plenty of warmth and charm to help the medicine go down.
Beautifully designed by Les Brotherston and outstandingly lit by Mark Henderson, Mackmin’s production is high on atmosphere, complete with billowing curtains and a noisy finish, although the ominous underscoring has varying (sometimes distracting) effect. For all the bustles on show, the play feels more a study in depression, anxiety and claustrophobia than on 19th Century mores. But Sheridan Smith is the star attraction, her face a near constant smile but her eyes an ever-changing window of emotions that the people closest to her never seem to look through. Only Judi Dench and Simon Russell-Beale can inspire such instant affection in an audience as she does. It’s a long way away from her days of “Bend and Snap”.
If Ibsen’s always seemed a bit posh and intimidating for you, the sort of show you’d take your parents to but not a date, this is the production to change your mind. A funny, touching, wonderful night at the theatre.
VERDICT: ***** (5 stars) Outstanding production of classic play.
Photography: Johan Persson