“They may say what they like, for aught that I care”
There’s something rather pleasing about watching the upwards trajectory of an actor in front of our very eyes, the sense that we are witness to a genuine star in the making. From Little Shop of Horrors to Legally Blonde to Flare Path, Sheridan Smith has worked up a list of much-lauded theatrical credits, in the face of much scepticism it has to be said, which sits next to a television career which has also deepened and broadened in the types of roles that she is taking on. It was still a little bit of a surprise though to find that she would be taking on the title role in the Old Vic’s production of Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s complex character oft being considered one of the juiciest roles for an actress to take on.
Anna Mackmin directs a new version of the text by Brian Friel whose main focus seems to have been to imbue the play with a much stronger vein of humour. It is a decision of which I was not particularly fond as it diminishes much of the impact of the first half of the play. Being encouraged to laugh so much at the characters by whom Hedda finds herself surrounded in what is meant to be her newly-wedded bliss means that there’s too much of a disconnect when the more serious business post-interval kicks in. Adrian Scarborough’s husband is the biggest victim here, we’re never really invited to see him as a real man beyond his wife’s distaste and though his grand moment plays well to his comic strengths, it feels entirely incongruous.
Smith herself plays a very brittle Hedda who makes no attempts to hide her cruel streak or the slyness in her nature and though this plays off the enhanced comic strand of Friel’s text, it also brings about a hollowness to the role, a certain lack of credibility that she could ever be a part of this world, beyond her own feelings of estrangement. Not quite enough depth is suggested behind this acerbic front and so as her haughtiness descends into wild desperation, the tragic note isn’t perhaps quite as deep and affecting as one might have wanted.
Fortunately, in the case of Fenella Woolgar’s Thea Elvsted, Hedda’s old schoolfriend, Friel adds in a final grace note of great fascination, which feels entirely appropriate in suggesting a completely alternative vision to life than the one which dominates Hedda’s mindset. Woolgar brings a huge dignity to Thea though, even against Friel’s initial manipulations, and it is her elegant performance that stood out the most for me, with Darrell D’Silva’s bounteous Judge Brack also worthy of a mention.
Lez Brotherston’s beautifully mounted set looks simple: a drawing room upstage with a glass-fronted conservatory behind leading to the other, barely-seen rooms of the house. But with the evocative lighting from Mark Henderson, Mackmin constructs image after image which elucidates Hedda’s mental state, a succession of striking tableaux of trappedness, frustration, isolation, desperation. The visual language is often cinematic in its scope, something underscored by Paul Englishby’s frequently ominous score which was a little heavy-handed for my taste in the end.
So a Hedda of mixed, though largely positive elements. Mackmin’s visual eye is stunning but she doesn’t quite marshall her company to the same level, Brian Friel’s version having a substantial impact in reshaping Ibsen a little too far for it to have the dramatic impact intended. I still think we’ll be talking about Sheridan Smith for years to come though.