7 September 2012

Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic

The Old Vic has decided that Sheridan Smith is the big pull for the new Hedda Gabler and they are probably right. It is certainly one of the reasons that I went.

The other reasons were the Isben and Old Vic brands, both of which have stood me pretty well in the past (with some notable exceptions).

The evening got off to good start with a glass of champagne in the Pit Bar under the theatre and then a quick word with some of the cast of Benidorm who were there to see their former colleague (Sheridan was in Series 3).

Then it was time to settle in to my seat in the centre of the front row of the Dress Circle. This is my favourite position in large theatres.

Hedda Gabler covers familiar Ibsen territory, a married woman in some turmoil that include another man.

Hedda is married to a seriously boring but earnest academic (not sure how that happened) and they have returned to Oslo after their long honeymoon (which was more academic research than romance) to start their new life in a rather grand house. He has hopes of a professorship but she lacks any ambition for the future.

Add to the mix a former college friend who went off the rails but who has bounced back with a highly regarded book, a lecherous judge, an aunt who wants to bring Hedda firmly in to the extended family, a stubborn maid who has served the family for many years and another former colleague (a woman) who appears to have left her husband in Trondheim to be with the author having helped him to write his book over many months.

Hedda's life is full of options but none of them look that good.

Her husband wants to wallow in academia, the author wants to rekindle an earlier romance and the judge wants to call on her every day until she relents to his pursuit.

Hedda starts by trying to impose her will on everything from whether the curtains should be open and what to call her new auntie. She is brusque and deliberately insulting as she does this. It's a temper tantrum from a spoilt brat.

The story develops from there. You know it is going to be an unhappy ending but the suspense comes from not knowing which unhappy ending it will be. There are quite a few jokes along the way and the play is surprisingly light for most of the way but Hedda's position is always untenable and a denouement inevitable.

The cast are magnificent especially the husband and the errant wife. In one memorable scene when the possibility of babies is mentioned he goes right over the top moving quickly past choosing names for them to selecting which piano teacher to have.

Sheridan as Hedda I am less sure about and even less sure whether the lack of Hedda's gravitas was down to her acting, the direction she was given or the way the character is written in the play, i.e. perhaps it was meant to be like that.

I had no particular problems with the way Hedda was played but it did seem a little odd for Ibsen to name the play after this character and for the Old Vic to make such a fuss over Sheridan playing it when the role is not actually central to the play. It is as much about the husband and the author as it is about her.

Putting aside my unrealistic unmet expectations, this was an excellent production with a lot of rich characters interacting vibrantly with each other as the complex situation evolves. Everybody played their part well and the evening was definitely a big success if not quite a triumph.

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