Hedda Gabler

A show that has left critics reeling, Hedda Gabler shocks and enthralls

Hedda Gabler, played by Sheridan Smith

Hedda Gabler, played by Sheridan Smith

Venue: The Old Vic, London
Director: Anna Mackmin
Running: 5th September – 12th November
Rating: *****

The play has famously been rewritten by Brian Friel, a world-renowned Irish writer, spun from the 1890 original of Norway’s Henrik Ibsen . The programme boasts of the ‘profound influence that Henrik Ibsen’s drama has had on almost everything written for the theatre since [it’s conception]’.

Set in 1890’s Norway, Hedda Gabler unfolds over two days all within the confines of a single room. The honeymoon-fresh couple Hedda Gabler (Sheridan Smith) and Jørgen Tesman (Adrian Scarborough) have moved into a large new life. However, all the classic bourgeois securities of fidelity, possessions and income begin to sway precariously, shaken further by Hedda’s puppet-master-like control.

The cast provide a delectable smorgasbord of characters, all magnificently acted, but Smith (recently in the film Hysteria) steals the show with a deliciously dangerous smile and athletic eyebrows. Her face is disquietingly agile, to match the quality of memorable lines such as how “malevolence gives life an interesting tang”.

Comedy of wit and irony is deftly intertwined with poignant scenes, most devastatingly in the predictable but gripping ending. This mixture makes for uncomfortable viewing but with a startlingly profound effect holistically.
The set is a masterpiece in itself, setting the tone for the visually stunning performance. Every step, expression and turn could have been choreographed for a photo shoot – the combination of elaborate costumes and attractive individuals is so pristine and elegant the theatre viewing is more akin to sitting in the corner of a room or watching a film. In watching, you feel as if you are peering in from the night into a dolls-house. The constant use of window-light, curtains and doors is cleverly engineered – an illusion of space and freedom gives way to a suffusion of clammy claustrophobia that begins to suffocate, accenting the tension rise tangibly.

Period-drama style music underscores the drama with haunting effect. Friel speaks of his use of music to “explode theatrically the stifling rituals and discretions of family life”, and it does just this, adding a new dramatic dimension – Hedda alone with the music in the most unforgettable scenes.

Hedda Gabler is a play of subversion and manipulation in a tableau of biting realism; of women attempting to slip their nineteenth-century collars of oppression, interspersed with safety-valves of light humour. The major events are very predictable and there are scenes that lack verisimilitude, but these complaints seem petulant in the shadow of a stunningly executed piece of theatre.

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