As a Scandinavian, it is very exciting when the West End takes on some of the Nordic masterpieces. And when this is Ibsen himself, whose dramatic portrayal of women had such an impact on theatre and the feminist movements in Western Europe, a West End production of Hedda Gabler creates quite high hopes. With a version by the brilliant Brian Friel (Philadelphia, Here I come!, Aristocrats) and with Sheridan Smith (Flare Path) as Hedda, expectations are high.
Set in the late nineteenth century when domesticity was the norm, we witness a spark of feminism growing into a fire as the young Hedda Gabler struggles with her new position as wife to George Tesman, a sincere and homely but rather buffoonish professor to-be. As an only child of a general, Hedda has enjoyed a freedom that she now has to abandon for the life of wife. Life in the middle class is restricted, and the reappearance of Tesman’s academic rival and Hedda’s childhood sweetheart, Eilert Loevborg, throws their lives into disarray.
Loevborg is a talented writer whose book has thrown Tesman into a strange mixture of wild adoration and jealousy. Not only is Loevborg a threat to Tesman and his expected professorship, he is also much closer to Hedda than appropriate. Hedda is deadly scared of scandals and will stay faithful to her husband though she doesn’t love him, but when she hears of the work relationship between her school friend Thea Elvsted and Loevborg she loses herself to jealousy and leads Loevborg down an old, dark path that has big consequences for them all.
The character of Hedda Gabler has often been described as a female Hamlet, and the spark within a woman so restricted by her society is a challenge not many actresses can perfect. Sheridan Smith once again shows why she is the new mistress of the stage in the West End. Winning awards for both Flare Path and Legally Blonde, she has already proven her worth on the London stage, and undoubtedly she will receive high praise for her performance as Hedda. Smith is electrifying and ignites the stage before she has even opened her mouth. She is like a volcano of inner life and you expect her to explode at any moment. She builds up the drama beautifully with her restrained smile and it is hard imagining an actress better fit for the role.
Smith is joined by a striking cast, with Adrian Scarborough as the warm yet painfully naïve George who runs through a spectrum of emotions. Fenella Woolgar is gloriously energetic and nervous as Thea, and creates a very modern and passionate characterisation of the brave, sincere Thea who has left her husband for Loevborg, who doesn’t really love her. Darrell D’Silva’s charisma is phenomenal as Judge Brack, and Daniel Lapaine’s Loevborg is just as fast-paced and enriched with energy and passion as Smith’s Hedda. Anne Reid’s Juliana Tesman is warm and loveable and, along with Buffy Davis’s grounded Bertha, embodies Scandinavian earthiness.
It is clear that casting director Sarah Bird knows her stuff. The cast bounce off each other like pinballs, and with Brian Friel’s fiery and funny version of Ibsen’s masterpiece, Hedda Gabler seems modern and deliciously classic at the same time. The set is realistic and honours the period of the play with beautiful glass doors and interior design. Mark Henderson’s lightening design is striking, and Paul Englishby’s music hits the melancholic and thrilling tone of Scandinavian dramas to perfection.
With a classic like Ibsen it would be natural to think of it as a mature play and not something for people under 40. But Hedda Gabler is a clever, fresh and painfully human look at a woman’s attempt to kill off her own passion and dreams. Though our society has changed, we still have the fight in us, the desperate desire for a voice and a chance to take a leap into the unknown. Hedda Gabler is a beautiful reflection on these hopes and dreams and with a spectacular cast guided by director Anna Mackmin you are sure to leave with something to think about.
Hedda Gabler is playing at The Old Vic until 10 November 2012. For more information and tickets, see www.oldvictheatre.com