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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
HEDDA GABLER
at the Old Vic

THE DEPTH OF TRAGEDY
By JOHN NATHAN


There is the sense here that while starring in Brian Friel's new version of Henrik Ibsen's perfectly plotted tragedy, Sheridan Smith in the title role has, as an actor, come of age. She has fully made the transition from frothy TV sitcom to the classical stage. Such is the diversity of the impish Smith; she will from now on be able to take on the fizziest of comedies and the darkest dramas with equal confidence. 

Smith arrived at Ibsen's depressed, manipulative and dangerous heroine via an eclectic and energetic range of roles. She tottered in high heels as Elle Woods, the lead in the musical Legally Blonde (for which Smith won an Olivier), and she pratfalled around the stage as a feisty Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

But it is a calculating stillness that characterises her Hedda. When this bored only child of a general isn't dishing out barbed comments to her doting husband George, or impatiently pacing around the white wooden elegance of her Norwegian house (designed by Lez Brotherston), she sits silently in her tightly corseted crinoline – a half smile playing over her lips, a slight tilt to the head that suggests the formation of destructive thoughts. 

There will be those who balk at Friel's new script, which expands – though with Anna Mackmin's gripping production, doesn't appear to lengthen – Ibsen's original. Hedda's over-anxious husband George, played by an unforgettable Adrian Scarborough, becomes a fully blown comic character who nostalgically obsesses about his slippers and launches into a touching, celebratory romp around the house when Hedda tells him she is pregnant. Mackmin doesn't allow the laughs to lighten the depths.

On the acting stakes, Smith gets terrific support from Fenella Woolgar's earnest Thea and Anne Reid as George's overbearing aunt Juliana. Darrel D'Silva is hugely enjoyable as the hedonistic Judge Brack.

Daniel Lapanie as the recovering dissolute Eilert comes across as underpowered in the company of such charismatic performances. And to add to that small gripe, Mackmin's use of foreboding music to add significance to plot points feels a tad too on-the-nose. There's a dark rumble at the appearance of the brilliant and ill-fated manuscript written by George's more talented colleague Eilert. And although D'Silva's seductive Judge Brack is very likeable, likability is not quite what's required here. Hedda's sense of entrapment must be total. And frolicking with a charmer like D'Silva's Brack certainly doesn’t feel like a fate worse than death.

Yet most of these negatives feel like quibbles in a production that evokes a wider range of emotions than are normally served up by Ibsen's play. I'm going to say it. Friel has improved it.

There will be those who are appalled by another writer playing fast and loose with Ibsen – even by a writer as accomplished as Friel. But it's not the first time Ibsen's been worked on, and it won't be the last. Thomas Ostermeier's German version adapted the play's climactic death so that it went unnoticed by the other characters. It worked brilliantly well. So does Friel's. 

 


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