In a push for theatres to (rightly) support new writing, we’re often in danger of overlooking the ‘classics’. And while there is a balance to be struck, the Sherman’s new production of Hedda Gabbler makes a good case for strong classical repertoire in a season.
There is, of course, a reason classics become classics, and the continued sharing of these works is important- not least for the groups of school pupils who were enraptured on Press Night and hopefully every other night of this run.
But also because we as a theatre community need to remember to look back at, and continue reinventing classic drama. Chelsea Walker, steering Brian Friel’s adaptation, does exactly that, giving us Hedda Gabbler with everything that makes it a ‘classic work’ but with enough of a new interpretation to make it fresh, relevant and important for today’s audiences.
Brian Friel’s 2008 adaptation modernises the text without feeling forced or heavy-handed. Indeed Friel’s writing smoothes over and makes Ibsen an easier listen in terms of dialogue. The writing manages to retain everything authentic in the original, while giving it an artistic refresh. Now ten years old, the adaptation is suitably modern and simultaneously timeless.
And it is, of course, the mark of a confident and assured dramatist like Friel that he doesn’t seek to compete with Ibsen and in so doing this version feels like a deep dive into and retelling of the classic.
The mark of successful ‘classics’ revived on stage is knowing when to innovate and when to let the things which made it a classic speak for themselves. This is exactly the approach director Chelsea Walker has taken as well. She reconfigures and retells never competes with what went before. The production feels contemporary, in setting and directing style, without feeling forced.
Walker’s direction also adds a contemporary touch to the world of the play and the characterisation. We’re pulled more into the mental states of each of the characters, and the circumstances of Hedda. It was always there in Ibsen’s writing, but Walker pulls it into sharp focus.
Rosanna Vize’s design is oppressive and grey, clinical but also intricately put together. It works to create an oppressive world in which Hedda is trapped. It’s a grey clinical house and the only part of the stage with ‘character’ is Hedda’s old piano. It’s a clever use of design which marries simplicity, with symbolism.
The line of chairs behind the set on which the company sit for the first act evokes the idea of society looking in on Hedda and Tesman’s marriage. The use of flowers and flames as a motif add a touch of additional insight into the inner workings of the characters through their environment.
This is complemented by effective, evocative lighting design from Joseff Fletcher. His design focuses and drives action, pulling audiences in and out of focus with it. And while it seems an unusual comment, his use of darkness in the design is one to be noted, and there is a symbiosis between light, sound, design and performance with is hugely evocative of Hedda’s mental state.
The trio of men Hedda is faced with are used effectively to demonstrate what she is railing against. Her husband George Tesman (Marc Antolin) is affable, sweet even and largely ineffectual against Hedda’s at times other-worldly and untouchable aura.
Antolin offers a different take on the ‘traditional’ Tesman. He’s endearing and loveable and not boring – you believe in his intellect, and his potential success and there’s a certain sadness to how he feels he pales compared to Hedda, while also missing truly ‘seeing’ his wife.
Alongside Tesman there are Judge Brack (Richard Mylan) and Eilert Loeveborg (Jay Saighal). Competitors to Tesman in more ways than he understands, they offer seemingly different sides to the ‘triangle’ that Hedda is caught in.
Saighal’s Loevborg offers alpha-male assurance through his intellectual power, a draw to Hedda, an equal to the intellect her own husband doesn’t see. And a potential match that was never made. Saighal brings out the cracks of vulnerability in his character that is vital to understanding the broken nature of everyone in this world, and the silence around it which is the tragedy at the centre of Ibsen’s play.
Alongside him, Mylan offers the ‘cheeky chap’ Judge. One out of step with the ‘proper’ world Hedda inhabits and offering the allure of another life entirely. Funny and endearing, Mylan offers much needed comic relief and adds a real heart to the performance.
It is the women of the play that truly excel. They are allowed by Walker’s direction to have space to be the women Ibsen’s always could have been. Most notable is Nia Roberts as Juliana Tesman. She is no longer the sad spinster but instead a strong independent woman – and there is an undertone of jealousy to Hedda’s response to her, that wish to be like her and not trapped as she is.
Similarly offering humour to her role is Caroline Berry who gives housekeeper Bertha a wry wit (and scene-stealing dustpan and brush action). Alongside Roberts, she shows that even the minor female roles have much more to say in this play.
Alexandria Riley as Thea Elvsted and Heledd Gwyn as Hedda command the stage in their respective roles, offering emotive portrayals of very different women, but each with power and something to say. There’s a compassion to Riley’s performance, and a steel core of integrity. Her presentation as the dowdy wife used by Elvsted is more complex as written by Riley and Walker, pulling at the threads of why Thea chooses that life, offering perhaps interestingly more questions than answers.
Riley’s performance – stoic but warm, layered but open – offers a contrast to Gwyn’s poised controlled Hedda who is as much terrifying as she is tragic. Her coolness, and control makes her unravelling even more powerful, and as much as it is anticipated, remains shocking.
The production is accomplished, and polished but not to the point that you feel detached from it. Instead the details, the care taken with performance offers further insight into a well-worn classic.