Tuesday, 29 October 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: Hedda Gabler - The Sherman Theatre, Cardiff.

Chelsea Walker’s production of Brian Friel’s adaptation of Ibsen’s original play might be described as ‘high concept’: from the moment the lights came up on stage, we were not in a drawing-room but a ‘non-space’, Hedda herself isolated downstage while the other characters, seated on a raised platform at the back, surveyed her with impassive detachment. This stasis did not last long, though when Aunt Juliana and Bertha the maid began their opening dialogue from their seated positions at the back, I did begin to wonder how far this concept might carry....

I needn’t have worried. Although hardly a ‘straight telling’ of the text, Walker’s production has many old-fashioned virtues - clarity, dramatic verisimilitude and, perhaps most of all, stage pictures that are congruent, rather than at odds, with the spoken dialogue. All this was in evidence during the splendidly physical opening scenes with George being welcomed home by his smothering aunt: Hedda’s entrance into this cosy domestic set-up was, for once, the dramatic ‘new paragraph’ it needs to be. The stage groupings reflected the new bride’s instinctive paranoia, from which she has to break out, good manners be damned. It was also an inspired idea to turn Bertha (Caroline Berry) into a kind of silent chorus figure - there was one striking moment when she materialised out of nowhere to quickly dust up the shards of a wine-glass Hedda had broken in a moment of existential angst - rather than the walk-on she usually is.

As Hedda, Heledd Gwynn cut an almost androgynous figure - rail-slim, barefooted, and with the kind of severe cropped haircut that the General, disappointed in not having a son, might have forced on her. This masculine effect was slightly mitigated by a pair of Beatrix Campbell earrings and a (very feminine) blue tulle dress. Thus, the point that other performances have struggled to make - that Hedda is a ‘male temperament’ trapped in a woman’s body - was made by judicious use of costume/make-up. Yet Gwynn’s often balletic and always highly physical performance carried many surprises - not least the degree of sympathy she evoked for a character whom many find hard to like. It helped that she was matched with Marc Antolin as her scholar husband - played, for a change, not as a milksap dunderhead but as a thrusting and ambitious career academic who hasn’t entirely severed the apron strings attaching him to Aunt Juliana. Fast-paced and discretely funny, Antolin offered a convincing portrayal of a man who will have a life after the death of the wife whom he (at one point literally) puts on a pedestal.

The evening’s most striking performance came from Nia Roberts, in the minor (in stage time) role of Aunt Juliana - not the sweet old lady many expect but a vigorous figure in early middle-age whose happy lot in life is to live through her nephew. Roberts’ contrarian view of the character - who, in this reading, clearly dislikes Hedda but will put up with her because she ‘carries the future’ - blasted away the barnacles of cliche that have settled on it over the decades. A triumphant re-interpretation!

Friel’s adaptation contains rather more Friel than it does Ibsen: at the other extreme from Patrick Marber’s recent rival version, it is extremely wordy (in a way plays tend not to be these days) and contains several speeches which have no parallel in the source play. At their best, these develop and illuminate Ibsen’s themes; at their worst, they are merely verbose and it’s to the cast’s credit that they coped with Friel’s occasional longeurs as adeptly as they did the more focused moments.

Reviewer - Richard Ely
on - 28/10/19

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