Sunday, 9 September 2012

Hedda Gabler - The Old Vic - Thursday 6th September 2012

Hedda Gabler, daughter of an aristocratic general, has just returned from her honeymoon. Her husband is Jørgen Tesman, an aspiring, reliable (but not brilliant) academic who has combined their honeymoon with research for his next book. The reappearance of Tesman's academic rival, Ejlert Løvborg, throws their lives into disarray. Løvborg, a writer, is also a recovered alcoholic who has wasted his talent until now. Thanks to a relationship with Hedda's old schoolmate Thea Elvsted (who has left her husband for him), Løvborg shows signs of rehabilitation and has just completed a bestseller in the same field as Tesman.
The critical success of his recently published work transforms Løvborg into a threat to Tesman, as he becomes a competitor for the university professorship Tesman had been counting on. The Tesman's are financially overstretched, and Tesman tells Hedda that he will not be able to finance the regular entertaining or luxurious housekeeping that Gabler had been expecting. Upon meeting Løvborg, however, the couple discover that he has no intention of competing for the professorship, but rather has spent the last few years labouring with Mrs. Elvsted over what he considers to be his masterpiece, the "sequel" to his recently published work.
Apparently jealous of Mrs. Elvsted's influence over Løvborg, Gabler hopes to come between them. She provokes Løvborg to get drunk and go to a party. Tesman returns home from the party and reveals that he found Løvborg's manuscript, which he has lost while drunk. When Gabler next sees Løvborg, he confesses to her, despairingly, that he has lost the manuscript. Instead of telling him that the manuscript has been found, Gabler encourages him to commit suicide, giving him a pistol. She then burns the manuscript and tells Tesman she has destroyed it to secure their future.
When the news comes that Løvborg has killed himself, Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted are determined to try to reconstruct his book from the comprehensive notes, which Mrs. Elvsted has kept. Gabler is shocked to discover from Judge Brack (a friend of Tesman's), that Løvborg's death, in a brothel, was messy and probably accidental.  Worse, Brack knows the origins of the pistol. He tells Gabler that if he reveals what he knows, a scandal will likely arise. Gabler realizes that this places Brack in a position of power over her. Leaving the others, she goes into her room and shoots herself in the head.
Darrell D’Silva - Dr. Brack
Buffy Davis - Bertha, the maid
Daniel Lapaine - Eilert Loevborg
Anne Reid - Aunt Julie
Adrian Scarborough - Tesman
Sheridan Smith - Hedda Gabler
Fenella Woolgar - Mrs. Elvstead

Creative Team:
Director - Anna Mackmin
Designer - Lez Brotherston
Lighting - Mark Henderson
Music - Paul Englishby
Sound - Simon Baker
Casting - Sarah Bird

Once upon a time, when the world was young, you went to drama school and then learnt the nuts and bolts of your craft in the theatre. You started out playing maids or butlers, progressed to small supporting parts, and eventually played the lead. Then your agent sent you off to audition for a TV programme or a film, and you took all that you learned in the theatre and hopefully made a success of your latest exciting venture. Now it seems that you finish drama school, do a soap or a sitcom, become an overnight success and then head back to the stage to show how in touch you are with your artistic roots. Unfortunately, what you learn dong a soap or a sitcom often doesn’t stand you in very good stead for the rigours of the stage. There are no retakes, no opportunity to cover up your lack of stage experience, no technique to fall back on if something happens in the auditorium and distracts your attention. Stage fright? Tough. You are on your own. If you are lucky, you are part of a cast of experienced actors who can support your performance and help you look better than you really are. If you’ve got any common sense, you don’t tackle the classical repertoire until you’ve got a good few years stage experience under your belt, at which point you may decide that you have always longed to play Hamlet and that now is the time.

Before taking on this part, Sheridan Smith freely admitted in a Time Out interview that she had never heard of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. In fact, she had to look it up on the internet, and was almost put off playing the title role by what she read. Would that she had listened to that inner voice that said “Now is not yet the time”. A reasonably competent actress she may be, but now is not the time that she should be playing Hedda Gabler. She should have left it to someone with a bit more training, a bit more experience, a bit more technique. She should have taken a supporting role (there is an ideal role in which she could have excelled in this play), watched the actress playing Hedda carefully and learned from what she saw. And then waited her opportunity to play the role with all guns blazing. She certainly shouldn’t have admitted to her ignorance in an interview. But what the heck, the Casting Director must have thought. She’ll fill the theatre with people who liked her in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps or Legally Blonde and who will come to see her rather than those who have come to see Hedda Gabler. In terms of bums on seats, it’s a winner. In terms of artistic success, it’s a definite maybe.

In terms of the audience, it’s a mistake. Yes, the theatre was full. But (as an apocryphal story about a returning WW1 solder goes) “My dear, the people! And the noise!”. I don’t think I’ve ever sat in such a badly behaved audience. There were those who can’t sit for 15 minutes without checking their mobile and those who didn’t have the intelligence or the courtesy to turn them off before the performance started (of course, their phones always start ringing just when the drama is at its height). There were the sniffers without handkerchiefs, the constant fidgeters during the wordy bits, the people who think its appropriate to chat to their friends during the performance. The sweet wrapper rustlers. Those who think that the leading lady should be roundly “whooped” at the curtain call. You know, those people who think that going to the theatre is the same as watching something on the TV. All, without exception, under 30. There to see Sheridan Smith and with little or no appreciation or understanding of the play. Thankfully, Him Indoors explained their presence with the immortal line “She [Ms. Smith] has a large following among The Youth”. Honestly, all that was missing was a string of pearls and a lorgnette.

Now, before the Sheridan Smith fans give me the same treatment as the James Corden fans, I’m not saying that she didn’t make a game stab at the role. But the role of Hedda has been described as “the female Hamlet”. The role belongs to the Juliet Stephensons, Maggie Smiths and Maria Ewings of the acting world. You need the solid weight of experience behind you to fully make it yours. And, as yet, she doesn’t have it. There are times when she is on very uncertain ground, and its evident. Playing a role is not merely following your Director’s instructions and learning the lines, and there are many occasions when Ms. Smith is simply doing both. Her inexperience and uncertainty shows. Now is not the time. OK, this was a preview performance and Ms. Smith may have the good luck and/or the nous to follow a very steep learning curve during the run, but the work should be evident at the first performance, not the last. Her projection needs a lot of work (but then, to be fair, so does the projection of a lot of the cast. Anne Reid, in particular, should know a lot better because a lot of the time she is barely audible). Hedda is a power-player, a manipulator, but on many occasions Smith’s Hedda is a pawn, not a queen. She’s a bit frigid as well; there is no evidence of sexual tension between her character and Darrell Da Silva’s Judge Brack. When Fenella Woolgar is on stage with her, Woolgar is the one you are watching, because she can act with her body as well as her voice. She doesn’t need to even open her mouth before you can tell that she is pulled taught as a bowstring and is ready to snap. Woolgar knows how to fiddle with the handle of a bag, smooth back an errant lock of hair, stand there in awkward embarrassment. This is the role that Smith should have been cast in; a role which makes an impact but doesn’t have to carry the full weight of the play. One gets the feeling that when Smith hasn’t been told to do something, she doesn’t do anything, and the performance dips and peaks accordingly. Woolgar, in comparison, doesn’t stop. If she’s on stage, she’s acting.

Adrian Scarborough gives a full throttle Tesman – bumptious, tedious, irritating and petty, and its obvious why Hedda comes to loathe him; she’s like a clever canary which has the cat right where she wants him. Daniel Lapaine does his best with the difficult and near-impossible role of Loevborg (a part that is given such a build up before he appears on stage that it is apparently an uphill struggle to justify it afterwards). Anne Reid is a competent Aunt Juliana, but was practically inaudible in many places (particularly the second act). There is, however, little you can do with the part I would imagine other than be a fussy old spinster. I was shocked that she was not given a second costume; at the end, when her sister’s death is discussed, Aunt Juliana should be in full mourning. In this production, however, the character is simply wearing a black paletot (a kind of three-quarter length jacket worn over the bodice of an Edwardian day-dress) over the costume she wore in Act I. This is particularly noticeable as Smith is at that point dolled up to the tens in a slinky mourning dress worthy of Scarlett O’Hara – or perhaps Vampira.

Him Indoors accuses me of never noticing or commenting on direction, but even I noticed various points where direction was awkward or superfluous. There are many doors on the set, which is designed to be a “room within a room”, and several times characters seemed to do a full tour of the entire set to reach a particular door when in reality they would have simply entered or exited by the nearest one to hand. There is a certain “filmic” quality to some of the direction, particularly that before the dialogue starts; the play is almost told in flashback so that what you see at the very beginning is actually the very end. The lighting is very pretty and effective, but to me it felt as if the lighting technicians hadn’t quite mastered their “daylight quality” until the second act.

The Brian Friel version of Ibsen’s text is a bit clunky and peppered with constant references to Americanisms, along the lines of “What a corker, as I think the new-fangled American expression is”. Do I suspect a certain sense of wishing to amuse our Colonial Friends in the audience, or is it something to do with the fact that a trip to the Old Vic is now more or less a corporate experience with “American Airlines” plastered all over the building in various guises? Whoever decided to put that “American Airlines Bar” in the main foyer, right at the bottom of the stairs is a fool; it obstructs what is already a very cramped space (you really do have to fight your way through the champagne quaffers before the performance) interrupts the flow of the audience coming down the stairs afterwards. In case you miss your opportunity to buy a vastly overpriced drink in the foyer, there is another “American Airlines Bar” on the lower ground floor which obstructs the queue for the toilets. I doubt whether Lilian Baylis, founder of the Old Vic, would have approved, and I certainly disapprove of her portrait being relegated to the very top of the staircase where only the brave souls mountaineering up three floors to go to the toilet will ever see it.

And now, let us stand back and wait for the Sheridan Smith fans to pour scorn and vitriol on my review of their heroine.

This was a preview performance, pro reviews posted after opening night.

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These are my opinions. I am entitled to them. As you are to yours. If you are going to respond to my opinions, at least make your responses worthwile. Vitriol is pointless. And more importantly, won't get published - so you'll be shouting in the dark.