Last week, I bought a Kindle. Yes, I was late buying a smartphone and I was late buying a Kindle. But now that I have one, I find it hard to put it down. As my new technological device allowed me to easily acquire Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, I decided to prepare for my latest Old Vic outing by reading the play’s three first acts. I could not read the final act due to lack of time, which proved to be a good thing once in the theatre, as I was completely startled by the tragic finale.
There always seems to be a touch of modernity in the classic plays that the Old Vic presents. In this production, the modern elements were Sheridan Smith, who is apparently the “talk of the town” since she won an Olivier Award for her performance in Legally Blonde, and Brian Friel, who adapted the text.
At first, I thought that adapting a classic play by cutting and adding lines is quite disrespectful to the original writer, but I found out that it really depends on what play you are adapting, for who, and what you are trying to show. As the scenes progressed, I understood why the addition of twists, background stories and humour were necessary: Hedda Gabler is simply not that exciting a story. Brian Friel did not simply adapt the text because “he could”, but because he truly appreciated the original and wanted to make it accessible and fun for a 2012 audience. Hedda Gabler is not a comedy, but Friel’s work involved the audience, which is a show’s purpose, is it not?
When comparing this show with A Doll’s House a few months ago, Hedda is not as accessible a woman as Nora. She is difficult to understand and contradicts herself a lot, to the point where you do not know what she is hiding anymore. Because she is so mysterious, I never reached the point where I could feel for her. I think it is a very risky role to play, a “hit or miss” challenge for any female actress, as there is so little you can say to the audience and you can run the risk of being misunderstood. Nora, on the other hand, invites us to feel protective of her. Although Hedda kills herself before our eyes, I did not feel there could have been anything done to prevent this. Smith showed a lot of talent, but her character left too much to guessing and did not invite me to root for her in any way. However, two of the supporting actors stood out for me.
Last time I saw Fenella Woolgar was at the National Theatre in The Veil. My first thought at the time was that her voice was not strong enough for the large space, which was not the case at the Old Vic. Woolgar made the character of Thea Elvsted her own by openly showing her anxious state when faced with the rules of her time, but also proving that she is the only bold enough woman in this story to leave a life she dislikes. Adrian Scarborough was another highlight, especially through his long excited monologue after he finally understands that Hedda is pregnant. I highly enjoyed his physicality and comic qualities.
You recognise a fine production and skillful actors when you are gripped until the final word. However, a certain flavour is lost when, within that “grip”, you start asking yourself “when is something going to happen?”.