Old Vic, 11 September 2012
A misleading frills and fiddles trailer
A shattering experience, both in the theatre and on reflection afterwards. This is always my experience of Ibsen.
Partly, this is due to technique. He is the supreme exponent of the ‘well made’ five act drama, so popular in the nineteenth century, in which a stove as a piece of scenery in Act One will surely play a more significant role in Act Four, as indeed it does here, with Hedda burning her former lover’s masterpiece, a destruction shockingly equated with burning his child by Thea Elvsted.
But it is also due to his choice of subject. He brings the heroic, the sense that these events are portentous, that they matter, into the drawing room.
Previous dramatists had represented the fate of nations across the stage. Ibsen applied the same approach to the fate of individuals in situations we can all identify with. The amazing thing is that this works.
After we have learned to dislike her, Hedda reveals that her malice and arrogance arise from something terrifying, deep within herself – something that Judge Brack, to whom she has confessed, ascribes to feminine caprice.
This short dialogue , partly elaborated by Friel in his translation, is magnificent; Hedda’s repulsive pettiness is a response to feeling trapped and inadequate to life. Brack’s conventional hedonism is exposed when he is unable to comprehend her problem.
Hedda’s annihilating impulses are consequently first directed at her former lover and his mistress, then more successfully towards herself and her unborn child.
Are these impulses justified, given her sensibility and predicament? We’re drawn to her (or ought to be) even as we contrast her with her only serious rival in the drama, idealistic, single-minded Thea Elvsted.
It is one of Ibsen’s ironies that Hedda is the one described as ‘determined’, when she – and we, if we have eyes and ears – fully realise that the word better describes Thea. Hedda has a stronger sense of the futility of action, and so vacillates, Hamlet-like, until her final, dreadful aesthetically-charged suicide. Thea survives, and will resurrect her child, the ‘beautiful’ last masterpiece of their shared lover.
This final ambiguous situation is marvellously accentuated in Anna Mackmin’s production, entirely impressive apart from one now common misjudgement.Humour is now jarringly played up in Ibsen as much as in the past it was drearily played down, and I wonder if the pendulum will eventually stabilise.
As an aside, I’m massively relieved that the production was neutral on the proto-feminist aspects of Hedda’s situation – why try to relegate this universal drama to a museum piece?
I thought the standout performance was Fenella Woolgar’s Thea. In body language and voice, she absolutely convinced me that she was focussed to the point of hysteria. Sheridan Smith was impressive in the title role, although she was too convincing at its supposedly ‘capricious’ aspect, then almost remedied that through her silent horror when fully realising her situation in the final act.
The supporting cast were faultless. Let’s hope we get to see more of this neglected master.