Sunday, 20 January 2019

REVIEW: Hedda Gabler - Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham.

It’s not hard to understand why this is Ibsen’s most famous and frequently-revived play. The plot is that of a thriller, the characters are vivid yet complex and the titular role offers a rare substantial dramatic opportunity for a female actor (the likes of Lady Macbeth and Ophelia actually have very little stage time). The latter accounts for the spate of productions over the years featuring a range of ‘star’ actresses who have tackled the role with varying degrees of success (Sheridan Smith triumphed over stunt-casting at the Old Vic a few years back, but I shudder to recall Harriet Watler’s damp squib of a performance in the mid-nineties).

Director Harry Medawar’s production for The Richmond Shakespeare Society featured a compelling central performance by Amanda Adams who, bundled hair apart, is certainly fit for Ibsen’s own description of the General’s daughter. This was a refreshingly ‘light’ take on the role that eschewed the ponderous choices made by other actors (anyone who thinks that Hedda lacks a sense of humour needs to look at the text again) to present a droll, skittish portrayal of a woman who is more flirt Han ice-maiden. Hedda’s capricious spontaneity was well-telegraphed in the moment when she very deliberately mistook Aunt Julie’s hat for that of the maid-servant: other Heddas try to make it look like the honest mistake it’s later revealed not to be, but Adams smirked knowingly as she lifted it from the chaise-longue.

Productions of this play often stand or fall by how convincingly Hedda’s relationships with the other characters are presented and, notwithstanding Hedda’s own Act 2 explanation, I wasn’t convinced as to how Hedda had ended up with Simon Barlett’s somewhat declamatory George Tesman, or that Shana de Carsignac’s redoubtable Mrs. Elvsted would have found schoolgirl Hedda such a terrifying prospect. There was greater synergy with Nigel Cole’s serpentine Judge Brack - a silkily-spoken satyr in a cravat and wing-collar who is obviously a member of all the best clubs. Paul Grimwood managed to bring a welcome vitality to the role of Eilert Loevborg - a character who is usually a disappointment after the crescendoed drum-roll he gets in most of the first two acts - and his two crucial scenes with Hedda bristled with the right degree of suppressed desire. Elizabeth Salaman and Muriel Keech are a good double-act as, respectively, Aunt Julie and the maid Berte, but they can’t quite disguise the ploddingly expository nature of Ibsen’s ground-setting.

There remain some reservations about the director’s choices: the final confrontation scene between Hedda and Brack is played as exactly that, with the two facing each other across the living-room. There was sufficient space in Junis Olmscheid’s handsome and appropriate set to allow room onstage for Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted, who were busy reconstructing Loevborg’s magnum opus and whose presence made the exchanges between hunter and hunted necessarily furtive; reducing Tesman and Elvsted to offstage voices somehow robbed the scene of tension. And several important questions - Hedda’s pregnancy, the true nature of Loevborg’s relationship with Elvsted, the real quality of Loevborg’s ‘work of genius’ - seemed either unexplored or ignored.

Nevertheless, this was a worthwhile and enjoyable revival of a play that is so much more than its central character.

Reviewer - Richard Ely
on - 19/1/19

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