Review: Hedda Gabler, Salisbury Playhouse

“Every so often a dark impulse takes hold of me”

Brian Friel’s translation of Hedda Gabler was first seen at the Old Vic in 2012 when Sheridan Smith took on the lead role but Anna Mackmin’s production struggled somewhat with the humour that the Irish playwright introduced. A few years later though, Gareth Machin takes the same adaptation for his Salisbury Playhouse with greater success, finding an ideal balance of tragicomedy that might not always feel entirely Ibsenesque but remains convincing nonetheless.

Matters are also helped by casting the excellent Kirsty Bushell as Hedda, present on the not-inconsiderable list of actresses I really rate but well worthy of the place. With a whip-smart wit that lacerates too easily (her husband’s ageing aunt and their servant bear the brunt of this) and a sensuality that she deploys on seemingly every man but the one she’s wed to, Bushell gives us a real woman with a real sense of all the capricious vivacity that she believes will no longer be a part of her humdrum married life.

James Button’s design further plays into her despondency. The walls of the townhouse into which they decamp after their honeymoon are made of a near-opaque gauze which highlights the oppressive lack of privacy she feels but also exposes her every emotion, the withering contempt for her husband’s fussing (an excellent Ben Caplan) or the shuddering desolation at the realisation of what her life has and will become. It’s a testing role but Bushell really delivers.

She’s supported by a strong company – the aforementioned Caplan, David Bark-Jones’ seductively predatory Judge Brack and Damian Humbley’s deeply conflicted Eilert Løvborg all connect well with her. And in Kemi-Bo Jacobs’ Thea, Hedda’s former schoolmate and Løvborg’s current love, there’s a defiant streak of feminism which leaves us in no doubt that whilst Hedda is partly a victim of a patriarchal society, she’s mainly the author of her own fate in allowing her twisted psyche free rein. An excellent revival that makes a mockery of anyone doubting the quality of British regional theatre. 

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Helen Maybanks

Booking until 2nd April

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