Review: Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic

Adrian Scarborough as George Tesman and Sheridan Smith as Hedda Gabler. Photo Johan Persson

Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic, with Sheridan Smith in the title role, was always destined to be a much talked production: a successful star in a famous and demanding role is catnip for the media: I expect that, come Thursday morning, the headline “Is Sheridan Smith’s Hedda a hit?” will show up in the papers – hopefully in the front page. But theatre isn’t meant to be a test, and without a hint of nervousness or acknowledging the expectations, this production, directed with huge confidence by Anna Mackmin, bypasses the media hype and does what great theatre should do: it’s thrilling, visceral and fresh.

I ‘ll start with the set (designed by Lez Brotherston), partly because it’s the first thing we see: multiple glass panels and huge windows, they create depth but also give out a bottomless feeling, like if someone could fall into this world and never manage to come up for air. First scene, at night, Hedda silently stalks the house like a ghost and admittedly, this made me a bit nervous: I am not a big fan of additional scenes bolted at the beginning of a play, seemingly for the star to appear first. But soon it became clear I had nothing to be nervous about: the production, as well as beautiful to look at (the costumes alone are a marvel), brings this world alive and makes you look at it with fresh eyes.

The centre of this world is, of course, Sheridan Smith’s Hedda. It’s this extreme attention she receives from others that traps her into something she isn’t. Everyone in her world has different expectations and one piece of her puzzle but the pieces don’t fit together and Hedda doesn’t know what’s missing. She is horrified at her own behaviour at the exact same time as she relishes it and Sheridan Smith can hold these pieces together magnificently. Even if Hedda isn’t likable, as she could never be, Smith makes her wonderfully alive and moving and her fate becomes vital to us.

Adrian Scarborough’s George is both older and more clueless than I would normally like for the part, but this is Scarborough and he can do no wrong. George is as trapped as Hedda, he is just less aware of it, and his emotions are often underlined with hysteria. Anne Reid, as Juliana Tesman, is a genuine and warm presence and Fenella Woolgar, with a tinge of indignation and a fighting spirit, is a more interesting character than Mrs Elvsted often is. Darrell D’Silva, although not stretched, fits the part of Judge Brack like a glove and Daniel Lapaine is appropriately lost as Eilert Lovborg (although, I admit, this is my least favourite character in the play).

There are several nice touches in the production: the set allows the audience to see things the character can’t, and that makes for a thrilling final scene. Additionally the lines of the set often frame the characters (Hedda is often in the picture, sort of speak), which gives the production an epic iconoclastic feeling without minimising its visceral impact.

A final word for the adaptation by Brian Friel: after the end of the performance, we were wondering whether some of the text was changed as some scenes were heavy with sexual innuendo. In the end, I think much of it was in the acting. A recurring joke about Americanisms, not present in the original, just about worked but it felt unnecessary and a bit self conscious. None of these detracts from the quality of the production.

So, once the press reviews are out, I expect another question will be asked by the media: Can Sheridan Smith do the hat trick and get her third back to back Olivier award? I wouldn’t be surprises if she did.

My friend Revstan wrote her review here, well worth the read.

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