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Hedda Gabler, The Old Vic

Henrik Ibsen, in a version by Brian Friel
Directed by Anna Mackmin
★★★★

Pros: A first class production – the cast is fabulous, the set and lighting design are stunning and the play itself is a masterpiece worthy of its place amongst the great dramas of all time. It has one of the most dramatically staged endings imaginable.

Cons: It is long – at times it is hard to stay focused on the lengthy, lilting dialogues.

Our Verdict: This production engenders everything that you could wish for in dramatic performance, and epitomises the high quality theatre that London is renowned for.

Courtesy of Alastair Muir for The Telegraph

Astonishing – this play was written over one hundred and twenty years ago and yet it its themes are so relevant in 2012. This period drama could have been stripped of its costume and dressed up in jeans and t-shirts and no one would suspect it was written by a nineteenth century Norwegian writer. Hedda Gabler is a play about manipulation, devotion, money, power, jealousy, betrayal, blackmail, loneliness, politics, artistic talent, beauty, love and death. All the facets of human frailties are revealed with striking intensity in this wonderful adaptation by the Irish playwright, Brian Friel.

Hedda Gabler is often considered to be one of the great dramatic characters; a fantastically strong and, in this production, unpredictable woman, a feminist trapped by convention in her newly married life with the loyal and rather insipid Jørgen Tesman. The drama centres around the couple’s return from honeymoon and the arrival of their old flames, the officious and devoted Thea Elvsted and Ejlert Løvborg, a professional rival of Jørgens who is a recovering alcoholic. The plot twists and turns through the events of the day or two that follow their return: events which exacerbate Hedda’s frustration and machination and then crescendo to a tragic conclusion. The story is rather simple in its way, yet it reveals layer after layer of complexity based on the past, current circumstance and expectations of the future. Hedda is at times a lonely victim of circumstance, at others a manipulative, cruel and vindictive contrivance of a woman. Hedda Gabler is a fantastically dynamic lead role and you feel both sympathy and aversion to her at the same time.

This production at The Old Vic showcases this wonderful play with finesse. The set is simply stunning, beautiful in every way – the glass, the furnishings, the costumes, the flowers all so aesthetic and lavish. The stage direction also lends itself perfectly and seamlessly to the story. Whilst the events take place in one house, the movement flows through the set and brings some energy to the unfolding drama. Particularly wonderful is the lighting design – utterly convincing early morning sunshine and evening’s fading light at dusk, lamplight, fires in the hearth. There is no expense spared on this set and it is credit to Mark Henderson (lighting) and Lez Brotherson (designer) as the atmosphere created is elegant and resplendent.

The cast collectively and individually shine throughout the production. There is not a flaw in the portrayal of the characters, not a slip or a stumble in credibility or delivery at any point in the two hours and forty five minutes they are on stage. Sheridan Smith is Hedda Gabler, glistening and simmering beneath a suitably cordial demeanour, charming and demure yet intense and unstable. Adrian Scarborough plays Jørgen with consistent energy and affability, masterfully engendering both affection and ridicule with good measure. Daniel Lapane as Ejlert Løvborg is beautifully tragic and perfectly foiled by Fenella Wolgar’s portrayal of his devotee and ‘collaborator’ Thea Elvsted. Darryl D’Silva brings a palpable menace as Judge Brack and Buffy Davis gives us unfailing loyalty in Berte. The wonderful Anne Reid almost steals the show from Smith as ‘Aunty’ Juliane Tesman. This character is the antithesis of Hedda, quintessentially pure and good, and Reid gives a rendition that is immediately identifiable and superbly believable.

So, why not five stars? This production is long. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, however there are very long periods of pure dialogue with nothing to break the discourse and lift the pace. At times the lilt of the conversation makes it easy to drift away from what is being said. It could be more frequently punctuated perhaps with music or sound, to keep it buoyant. It is also feels like a ‘safe’ period production, where there is so much scope to be creative in the same way that Hamlet has been interpreted over the years. I wasn’t riveted throughout but that said, it is a wonderful, wonderful play. Even if you know how it ends, the ending is, well, simply sensational.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Hedda Gabler runs at The Old Vic until 10th November 2012.
Box Office: 0844 8717628 or book online at http://www.oldvictheatre.com/hedda-gabler-2/ 

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