Not a fallen woman: Hedda Gabler at The Old Vic

Hedda Gabler comes as a ray of (admittedly malevolent) sunshine amidst a September darkened with fallen women. Keira Knightley’s disappointing, if extremely handsome, Anna Karenina is both the dull seductress and the dully seduced, whilst the BBC’s latest success Parade’s End has Rebecca Hall’s Sylvia Tietjens using her sexuality for all sorts of mischievous purposes while her cuckolded husband (Benedict Cumberbatch) looks stoically on. So Sheridan Smith’s Hedda with her resolution to remain faithful – despite a clearly unsuitable husband and tedious honeymoon –  is a welcome change.

The set (designed by Lez Brotherston), with its central glass structure, serves to both remind the audience of the intangible ‘fourth wall’ that exists between ‘us and them’ as well as functioning as a sort of visual metaphor for the cage in which Hedda has trapped herself in her unsuitable marriage to George. It is, for the most part, an excellent set piece: throughout the play the continual closing of doors (shutting out other characters both literally and more metaphorically) is effective and the billowing curtains stage left contrast well, creating an unexpectedly claustrophobic atmosphere as unwelcome visitors come and go as they please.
The acting, too, was of a high calibre. Though Smith’s performance was almost flawless, the rest of the ensemble was not overshadowed. Daniel Lapaine’s Eilert Loevberg was fantastic – his quick descent into drunken debauchery as a result of Hedda’s manipulation entirely believable and his physical presence on the stage (particularly in the scenes where he and Hedda are alone together) was brilliant.

Unfortunately, however, the older characters Bertha (Buffy Davis) and Aunt ‘Juju’ (Anne Reid) seemed to be appearing in an altogether different play; one of farce and melodrama. Though the hat scene with Juliana aroused perhaps the most poignant emotions of the production, her smothering involvement in the couple, combined with Bertha’s hovering presence only served to detract from the piece. The duo open a play that is dramatically unrelated to that which follows; the initial dialogue is almost painful – I was left with the impression that they are not playing characters but merely stereotypes.

Anna Mackmin’s direction, despite a few flaws, is impressive. Though Hedda’s lap of the central glass prism seems stilted and the music that facilitates scene changes is rather forced, the important parts of the play are all taken care of with flair and Brian Friel’s more comic translation is fantastic, particularly towards the end of the play when intense tragedy is juxtaposed with laughter.

Hedda Gabler is not perfect, but she thrives upon those imperfections. Smith’s composed Hedda with her catlike smile leaves both the other characters and the audience torn between sympathy for her and horror at her “capricious” behaviour. The genius of the play rests on this personal interpretation and therefore, though I immensely enjoyed the production, I suggest you go and make up your mind yourself.

**** (4 STARS)

Hedda Gabler plays at The Old Vic until November 10th, with up to 100 student tickets (at £12.50) available for every performance.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvdX1T25FV4&w=450&h=340]

PHOTOS/Johann Persson