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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Hedda Gabler
Almeida and Duke of York's Theatres 2005

Ibsen's portrait of a frustrated woman is one of the world's great dramas, with one of the great roles for an actress.

If you know the play and have seen it before, you may possibly have seen it done better than in this Richard Eyre-adapted and directed production. But if you are new to it, this is close enough to ideal to show you how good a play it is.

To couch it in modern terms, the title character is a small town aristocrat married to a nice-and-therefore-dull guy, who over-romanticises the bad boy she had not had the nerve to run off with.

When he returns, reformed by the love of a good woman, she decides that only by inspiring him to a beautifully self-destructive relapse can she find some fulfilment of her romantic dreams.

There are also that good woman, her husband's relatives, and the village roue to deal with.

Hedda can be interpreted as a passionate woman too big for the provincial and sexist world in which she is trapped, as a woman more conventional than she realizes whose only trap is her own cowardice, or simply as a neurotic and destructive bitch.

Personally, I find the second reading the most interesting, but I don't hold it against director Richard Eyre and actress Eve Best that they've chosen a mix of the first and third.

Eve Best's Hedda enters the play already tormented by the feeling of being trapped - by her marriage, her finances, her newly-pregnant body.

Restlessly bouncing around the ponderously overfurnished room (its 19th-century heaviness nicely captured by designer Rob Howell), she's clearly on the edge of either an explosion or a breakdown even before the play's events unfold, and her impulse is always to lash out viciously at whoever's in range.

And therein lies the one problem with Best's otherwise fine performance once the characterisation is established, it really has nowhere to go.

The play's events don't really affect or change Hedda - they just provide her with more and more evidence of what she felt from the start. And so she doesn't really dive any deeper into either pain or near-madness.

And a central character who doesn't change, either positively or negatively, is almost inevitably going to lose us, as I fear Best's Hedda does.

I stress that the play and Best's performance are both strong enough to survive this problem, but it does keep both from total success.

Let me cite one moment as evidence. Without giving the plot away to those who don't know it, let me just say that in the middle of the play there is a moment involving a stove that should generate gasps of horror in the audience as we sense that Hedda is crossing a line into something like madness.

And not only did the scene not produce that response, but there was a noticeable increase in coughing, sure evidence of a disengaged audience.

Imagine a Hamlet - and the comparison is not unfair; this is that great a play - in which you found yourself gradually losing interest in the Prince, and you'll see the problem.

It is doubly a shame because some of the supporting roles are being particularly nicely played, threatening at moments to draw your focus away from Hedda.

Hedda's historian husband, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is not the semi-comic absent-minded professor of many other productions, but more an innocent country boy.

He's unheroic, perhaps, but clearly just because he's young and unformed, and with potential a woman less self-centred than Hedda might appreciate and nourish.

Gillian Raine as a maiden aunt and Lisa Dillon as the mousy little hausfrau who ironically proves more courageous and effective than Hedda both infuse their roles with more grit and iron than usual.

Jamie Sives accomplishes a similar redefinition of the reformed bad boy by going in the opposite direction, stripping away cliches to present him as a man for whom life has become simpler. Only Iain Glen as the roue disappoints, practically twirling his moustachios as a stock villain.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Hedda Gabler - Almeida Theatre 2005

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