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Hedda Gabler


Hedda Gabler

By Henrik Ibsen

A new adaptation by Andrew Upton

Directed by Laurie Sansom

Designed by Ruth Sutcliffe

Lighting designed by Philip Gladwell

Cast includes: Emma Hamilton, Jack Hawkins,

Matti Houghton, Janice McKenzie, Lex Shrapnel,

Jay Villiers, Sue Wallace

Venue: Royal and Derngate, Northampton

Until  28 July 2012

Time:  19:45 (matinees - Thursdays & Saturdays - 14:30)

Photo credit: Robert Day

Review by Eleanor Collins

The Royal and Derngate’s Hedda Gabler is a resounding triumph; gorgeously finished and emotionally raw, Laurie Sansom’s production brings the wittiest and the bleakest out of Ibsen’s famous play. Every moment is well paced and well judged. The immaculate set design is straight out of a Hammershøi painting; the performances poised and beautifully balanced; and Emma Hamilton as Hedda is captivating, pulls attention whenever she is on stage – which is for almost the entirety of the play. The first scene, between her husband Tesman (Jack Hawkins) and the matronly Julle Tesman (Sue Wallace), is defined by her absence – the one chance to encounter Hedda in the eyes of others before she takes over. She is at the centre of their world, and wholly uncooperative. The Tesmans’ enthusiastic cries of greeting are unwelcome, stifling. Hedda’s first stony-faced act is to begin to empty the room of bouquets of ‘funereal’ flowers: gifts from well-wishers for their new home.

 Hamilton as Hedda is unstoppable; she talks over everyone. She’s cruel, vitriolic, spiteful, and completely irresistible. Amid her talk of shooting neighbourhood cats she stares men down, tests how far she can go at each step. Pulls back when she thinks she’s near the limit – and then, smiling, goes a little further. She’s disingenuous and always driving, but still vulnerable and easily swayed: her eyes light up when she learns that Tesman suspects he felt ‘something mean’; she is genuinely shaken by Thea’s simple patience, and shocked by her courage in the face of public condemnation; she is reduced to almost petulant tears by the prospect of no longer being free to do as she pleases by the end of the play. This Hedda is scornful and then immediately sorry, hungry for entertainment and repeatedly disappointed. And though she’s full of sparkle and wit, she is utterly desolate – something that is felt more in her pauses and facial expressions than in the dialogue. Hamilton tells Hedda’s story – that of a woman essentially bored to death – with imagination, verve, and steely-eyed humour. She’s simultaneously venomous and despairing to the point of collapse; it’s a tremendous performance.

Hawkins plays Tesman as a fawning and neurotic creature, utterly beholden to the lure of the libraries and archives that Hedda finds so tedious. His worries about money and his career manifest themselves at several points in tearfulness and near-tantrum, and the scene in which he begins to read over his rival Løvborg’s book is heartbreaking as he is forced to break off his sentences in order to disguise his shaking voice. But he is also irritated by Hedda at times, particularly after she pretends to think Julle Tesman’s hat belongs to the maid; by the time we meet the married couple, Tesman is clearly already familiar with Hedda’s darker sense of sport, and the tension in the relationship is visible in him, as well as her. Lex Shrapnel’s Løvborg is spectacularly Dionysian – and even when sober, his passionate rejection of the petty academic ‘nest-feathering’ in which Tesman is so invested is revelatory. Brave and brilliant to Hedda, this Løvborg is physically and viscerally possessed by his intellectual ideas and truths in a way that exposes Tesman’s scholarly pursuits as school-boyish enthusiasms. And in later scenes you can almost smell the alcohol seeping out of his pores as he enters, wild-faced and sweaty. Jay Villiers makes a disarming and debonair Judge Brack, with whom Hedda flirts wildly and then plays off whenever it suits her, while Matti Houghton’s Thea Elvsted is meek, very worried, and (intentionally) frustratingly desperate. Hedda’s aggressive and erotic embrace of a terrified Thea before dragging her off to tea is a tantalizing extension of Hedda’s controlling and impulsive nature.

One of the production’s greatest successes is the set (Ruth Sutcliffe) and lighting (Philip Gladwell), which imbue the action with a very tangible and unremitting sadness. The play never moves beyond the bounds of the Tesmans’ sitting room – Hedda’s newly confined horizons – but in this beautifully composed and still set the passing of time becomes deeply felt. A solitary clock ticks in the background, and the levels of light are constantly shifting – the bright light of the morning from the French windows to stage right fades through the afternoon, and is replaced in the evening with the ambient glow of the room’s lamps. It is quietly effective, and somehow extremely poignant. And the use of the set to indicate Hedda’s gradual withdrawal and eventual exclusion from the household is also very well done – first the piano is moved out and into her room, then the covers that she so detests are laid over the furniture, and finally she relinquishes her writing desk to Tesman and Thea. And then, drawing towards the back of the stage, she leaves. For Hamilton’s Hedda, the play’s finale is not an act of desperation, but an attempt to take control – a wilful exit. This is a startlingly good production – catch it while you still can.

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