Last night we went to see Hedda Gabler at The Old Vic. I've never seen the play performed, nor have I read the entire Ibsen play, but my daughters both wrote fascinating papers on it for literature classes, so I was eager to see what the new production, with a re-write by Brian Friel, was all about.
Ibsen writes dark, but modern audiences like a little light humor with their dark, so apparently Friel added some funny bits to the morose play. Those were the bits that felt off. There was a scene in which Hedda's new husband, George, obsesses over a pair of embroidered slippers. The academic comes across as silly, and later, when he finds out his wife is preggers (or is she?), he goes from silly to demented.
This was jarring in an otherwise finely acted and translated play. Nor was Adrian Scarborough's performance as George Tesman entirely convincing: he was too old to come off as a newly hatched PhD, hoping for his first job as a professor.
Another "funny" thread running through the play was Judge Brack's obsession with Americanisms. Since it's very doubtful that Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian writing in the late 1800s, would have been concerned by Americanisms, I figured Friel was playing to his audience of Americanism-hating Brits. But even I had to laugh when Judge Brack declared "whoopie" to be a Native American term. At least he was politically correct.
The plot of Hedda Gabler holds together a bit better, if, that is, you can buy the conceit of Hedda's malevolence. Is she mentally ill? Is she a narcissist? Is she simply a bored housewife who delights in manipulating her friends? I saw a bit more than that in Sheridan Smith's performance: I saw a vulnerable woman who doesn't understand the capricious impulses that compel her to make cruel jokes about an old lady's hat, who once threatened to set her school friend's hair on fire. Yet later she envies the same woman for her audacity in leaving her boring husband for her lover Eilert Loevborg, the flawed genius (and recovering alcoholic) who's the heart of the play, if Hedda is the soul.
I loved Hedda, the same way I loved the vulnerable but malicious Sylvia in Parade's End. I was so caught up in her tragic life that I actually gasped with relief when I saw Sheridan Smith come back to the stage at the end to take her bow. The audience, who were more enthusiastic than I've heard at any other London performance, seemed to feel the same way. (I suspect they were applauding Friel's calling attention to those dreaded Americanisms.)
The Old Vic, named for the princess in whose honor it was refurbished in 1833, is a lovely building. It serves as a convincing backdrop to a nineteenth century play, even to the point of its one quaint pair of loos, which forces men and women to squeeze together in a tiny corridor while waiting for a coveted spot inside. I understand the restrictions of these old buildings, but surely if Ibsen himself can withstand the addition of a few laugh lines The Old Vic can find room for a few more toilets.