Thursday, 25 October 2012
Brian Friel has made this classic sparkle, with Sheridan Smith as its jewel
By Sam TaylorIt is hardly a surprise to discover that Brian Friel's adaptation of this dark Ibsen classic has a luminous, starry quality to it. His 1990 hit Dancing At Lughnasa was a disarming crowd-pleaser and as soon as the curtain rises on his Old Vic production, the message is clear: this is Hedda Gabler but not as we know it.
Sheridan Smith's breathtakingly impressive Hedda is spellbinding in a series of outfits that are more like fabric sculptures than mere dresses. Doomed, desperate and trapped, she bounces off the walls of her ivory tower. She may be going mad, but she is going mad in beautiful surroundings – Lez Brotherston has constructed a 19th-century modernist masterpiece. A dream interior of pale wood, glass doors and billowing gauze curtains.
It is a tribute to Friel's mastery that we believe that, just this once, tragedy might be averted. He has played with the script, that much is obvious from the start, and there is now humour – quite a lot of it, along with a stridency to Hedda's voice that has previously been more hint than hit. But Smith throws the punches well, often only with a single movement of her eyes.
Her hapless new husband, George, is played like a violin by the wonderful Adrian Scarborough. He manages to make us feel almost sorry for a man who represents everything that is absurd about the Pooterish qualities of the petite bourgeoisie. He is the Chihuahua to her Legally Blonde Elle.
Anna Mackmin directs with assured grace, allowing her female characters to step forward and reaffirm Ibsen's key belief in the strength of their sex. And Anne Reid is a gift as George's desperate-to-please aunt, while Fenella Woolgar as Hedda's old school friend, Mrs Elvsted, is in a class of her own.
As the story of her secret intellectual (and emotional) collaboration with the superbly unhinged Lovborg (Daniel Lapaine) unravels, it is obvious why the two girls lost touch. There could only be room enough for one woman that manipulative in both their lives.
By the time Ibsen wrote this play he was in his 60s and Friel himself is now in his 80s. Is it possible that it is only an old man's privilege to take such a leap of faith with the narrative possibilities of flawed but faultless heroines? James Joyce
said that: 'Ibsen's knowledge of humanity is nowhere more obvious than in his portrayal of women.' It's a gift shared with Brian Friel.
At The Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1, until 10 November: 0844-871 7628, www.oldvictheatre.com
Daily tip from the lady archive
"DEEPLY-ROOTED is the idea that men are indifferent to dress, while the ladies, God bless them, think of nothing else"The Lady, With Prejudice, 8th January, 1942
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