Review – Hedda Gabler, National Theatre on Tour, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th November 2017

Beware – there are spoilers! But then the play has been around for 126 years now, so it’s hardly going to come as a surprise…

Hedda GablerImagine a hypothetical meeting of all the best directors and producers in the country, all getting together to decide which play they next want to work on. One says I know, let’s do Ibsen, and another says, yes, great idea, what about Hedda Gabler? And everyone goes hurrah! And thus another production of Hedda Gabler takes to the stage, ignoring so many other of Ibsen’s great works that – it seems to me – get staged comparatively rarely. I first encountered the terrifying Ms Gabler (or Mrs Tesman, as Ibsen avoided calling her) in 1977 with the thrilling Ms Janet Suzman in the part. In recent years there was the slightly less than extraordinary Theatre Royal Bath production with Rosamund Pike as Hedda, and also the Royal and Derngate’s very own ex-Artistic Director, Laurie Sansom’s production in 2012, with Emma Hamilton as the arch-manipulative, butter-wouldn’t-melt bitch.

HG1Hedda Gabler, by the way, is Laurie Sansom’s favourite play and he describes the character as a female Hamlet. That’s interesting, because the programme notes for this National Theatre production, directed by Ivo van Hove, include Ibsen’s own preliminary notes for the play – which make fascinating reading and definitely worth buying the programme for that one page alone. One of these notes reads: “Life is not tragic – life is ridiculous – and that cannot be borne.” Not tragic? So much for the female equivalent of Hamlet, then.

HG8So, if you’re going to stage yet another production of Hedda Gabler, at least make it different. And, boy, have they done that! This version has been written by Patrick Marber, so you can guess it will be brought bang up to date, maybe with some sacrifices to the original text, of which purists are unlikely to approve. One look at the set alone tells you you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. If this is Kristiana in 1891, it’s not as we know it. Blank, colourless MDF panels surround the cavernous room; an electronic security system with camera buzzes visitors in and out; Hedda sits in a trendy 1960s style Scandinavian armchair; she uses an industrial stapler as part of her feng shui kit; Brack drinks from a ring-pull can (invented in 1959, according to Mr Wikipedia). Scenes are interrupted by music – uncredited in the programme but you’d swear some of it was Enya – creating a vivid, unsettling mix of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

HG7The lighting plays a significant role in creating tension. The set and lighting were both designed by Jan Versweyveld, obviously to complement each other and it really works. It’s the lighting that in many ways controls the play. A very sudden lighting change starts the performance; darkness ends it. After the interval, and when Hedda pulls back the blinds to let the daylight in, those blank colourless panels slowly take on colour. Pale at first, they grow richer through yellows and golds into redness as Hedda builds up to executing her catastrophic act at the fireplace. The final scene, where Ibsen directs that the room begins in darkness, opens with Brack and Tesman boarding up the window, drilling the boards into place, so the light is blocked out – and with it, all hope.

HG6Then there’s the casting, which in some cases distances itself as far as possible away from Ibsen’s original stage directions. Christine Kavanagh, for instance, who plays Tesman’s Aunt Juliana, looks at least twenty years younger than Ibsen’s suggestion of a 65-year-old woman. Abhin Galeya, as Tesman, doesn’t look a bit like Ibsen’s description of a stoutish man with a round face and fair hair and beard. This is a Hedda where they’ve cut away all the trappings of 19th century convention and performance style to bring it in to sharp modern focus. As an audience member, the juxtaposition of the modern and the traditional compels you to give it your full attention.

HG14It’s vital for a production of Hedda Gabler to have a strong central performance that really makes you understand the character’s motivation. Lizzy Watts’ Hedda is, without doubt, a smooth operator. Not merely the bored young housewife with nothing much to do and already fallen out of love with her husband; no, this Hedda is pathologically cruel, deliberately contrary, gleefully malicious. You can see her eyes widen and her smile break out when she thinks of a brand new way to cause pain and wreak havoc. It’s no coincidence that Hedda’s existence is contained within these four blank walls – you cannot imagine her existing outside them. How on earth would Tasman, or indeed Lovborg, ever imagined that she was a plum candidate for a relationship? Yes, she’s manipulative and no doubt presented well, but I don’t see how she could have held back from inflicting cruelty on even a first date. Fortunately, everything that’s gone before is in another time and place and we don’t have to consider it.

HG13It’s at the moments when Hedda is at her most destructive that Ms Watts shows us how much the character is pleasured by the sensation. Forcing Lovborg into drinking again is her first victory; getting him to take one of her father’s pistols so that he does the right thing is another. Burning his work gives her an inner contentment and satisfaction; hearing of his death damn nearly causes an orgasm. This is a study of someone sexually turned on by evil. When Brack confronts her with his knowledge of her involvement, and she realises that Lovborg’s death was not as poetic as she had hoped, he in turn drips, pours and spews his can of drink on to her (in her sensual, satin nightdress) which reveals itself as spatters of blood, the evidence of her guilt in an homage to Grand Guignol. It’s a gruesome, visceral sight that no one else seems to be aware of; is this Hedda’s brain telling her that she has, finally, gone too far? Or is Brack equally predisposed to making a grotesque gesture? However you interpret it, it’s a truly stunning image.

HG5Abhin Galeya’s Tesman comes across as far from being a dusty academic. He’s much more of a lad, skipping and jumping about in childish delight when he hears a bit of good news; an immature sop who’s no challenge to Hedda’s cunning. When he and Mrs Elvsted are seated, trying to piece together the original notes of Lovborg’s masterwork, it’s no surprise that they’re on the floor in the corner, like two kids playing a game. Adam Best’s Brack is a suitably nasty piece of work, affecting an air of respectability whilst concealing his own agenda; trapping Hedda against the wall, desperate to control the uncontrollable. Richard Pyros, Christine Kavanagh and Annabel Bates all give excellent support as a deeply pathetic Lovborg, a bright and kindly Juliana and a surprisingly feisty Mrs Elvsted. And Madlena Nedeva provides a slavishly dour presence as the maid, Berte; hanging on to her job for grim death by sitting permanently by the door like a grouchy Babooshka.

HG10This is a production that occasionally provokes nervous laughter from the audience at what you might feel are inappropriate times. No more so than the final scene, when Patrick Marber has Tesman slowly approach the lifeless Hedda with the flat response “oh, she’s dead”. Such a ridiculous thing for this great tragedy to end with – but wait, what was that Ibsen note? “Life is not tragic – life is ridiculous”. So, that’s spot on for this approach to the play. It’s a very different interpretation from what the average Ibsen-goer will be used to. The sterile, stylised setting won’t work for everyone, and, if I’m honest, some of the intrusive music really got on my nerves. But, then again, I think it was meant to. Not for the purist, not for the complacent; but definitely for the theatre buff who likes to have their ideas shaken up and turned on their head. After Northampton, the tour continues again from January to March, visiting Glasgow, Wolverhampton, Woking, Nottingham, Newcastle, York, Milton Keynes and Dublin.

Review – Hedda Gabler, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th July 2012

Hedda GablerWhen I discovered that the third play in the Festival of Chaos season was to be Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler I was slightly disappointed, as we had only recently seen another production at the Oxford Playhouse with Rosamund Pike and Tim McInnerny. Why couldn’t it be Ghosts? Or The Master Builder? Or Rosmersholm?

Emma HamiltonHowever, it’s an inspired choice. It dovetails perfectly with The Bacchae and Blood Wedding as a fine example of when someone goes against the grain and does something completely unsuited to their times, society and mores. Hedda has all the hallmarks of a Dionysian character, as director Laurie Sansom points out in his very useful programme notes. A bully as a child, Hedda as a young woman has undefined but we guess potentially impure liaisons with the writer Lovborg, which come to an end when he seeks the equivalent of 19th century Rehab. She is now stuck with her worthy but dull and completely incompatible new husband; but when Lovborg returns, Dionysus within her comes to the surface, not only in how she reacts with him, but in her feelings of jealousy and revenge with the feeble Mrs Elvsted, with whom Lovborg now seems romantically entwined, and also how she deals long term with her whole life situation. It is an exquisite play, and this production brings forward all the delicacies of the plot and brings to life real people with real emotions contrasting strongly with the reserved restrictions of the era.

Jack HawkinsThe set is extremely well devised, with four distinct acting areas each going back further and smaller away from the stage, giving an additional visual suggestion of depth to Ibsen’s words and characters. There’s also the garden area outside the French Windows where characters go to smoke and their lurking outside enhances the feeling of claustrophobia. The lighting works really well, with the different times of day nicely suggested coming through the windows. I won’t spoil it for you, but the lighting in the final minute of the play focusing on the back door is stunningly effective.

Jay VilliersEmma Hamilton plays Hedda Gabler with immense subtlety. Intensely manipulative, revengeful, cruel, deliberately hurtful; but with the ability to turn on the sweetest of smiles, you can absolutely understand why Tesman fell for her. Her words say one thing but her body says something else; you’ve never seen anyone throw away dying flowers with such purpose. Tesman’s possession of Lovborg’s manuscript opens up a range of possibilities for Hedda, and you know she’s going to do something wicked with it but you can’t quite tell what; and that’s partly down to Ibsen’s great writing but also Ms Hamilton’s superbly plotting facial expressions. Technically, she speaks with great clarity – always appreciated – and she brings forward all the light and shade of Hedda’s character. The last Hedda we saw, Rosamund Pike, started as a bitch, maintained bitchiness throughout and ended as a bitch. Emma Hamilton’s is a far more rounded and satisfying interpretation as she made Hedda’s motivations and emotions really clear – whilst still being a bitch.

Lex ShrapnelThe whole cast is excellent. Jack Hawkins as Tesman is completely convincing as the “good” man, but insensitive to the needs of others (especially his wife) and more engaged with his cerebrum than any other part of his body. His childish enthusiasm for all the things Hedda finds tedious is a brilliant portrayal of how different the two characters are. There’s a lovely scene where Hedda is taking Lovborg through the photograph album and calls on Tesman to explain the pictures. He takes her sarcasm as a compliment; it really sums up so much about both of them.

Matti HoughtonJay Villiers is Judge Brack and superbly blends the sophisticated charm of his influential position with a steely determined sense of self-preservation. It’s an immaculate performance, both amusing and slightly threatening. I also liked Lex Shrapnel as Lovborg, all wild haired and distressed, feeling the pain and torture of every moment, strong against temptation at first, only to give into Dionysus and his alcohol to shattering effect later. He’s a fine actor, very much a chip off the old block as I remember really enjoying his father John’s expressive performance as Andrey in Jonathan Miller’s 1976 production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

Sue WallaceMatti Houghton is great as the earnest Mrs Elvsted, blindly optimistic about her relationship with Lovborg, thinking Hedda can be trusted with her private matters, seeing her dreams come to nothing, but desperate to be useful, as when she is helping to piece together the manuscript. She’s a rabbit caught in the headlights of Hedda’s manipulations, and she really conveys well the vulnerability of the character. There are also excellent performances from Sue Wallace as the very kindly and supportive Aunt Julle and Janice McKenzie as the put-upon and fearful maid Berte.

Janice McKenzieIt’s an elegant production with great clarity of text – this is Andrew Upton’s adaptation, seen on Broadway in 2006 with Cate Blanchett as Hedda – and a satisfying concentration on the emotional motivations of the characters. Although I’ve seen or read Hedda Gabler four or five times before, I came away feeling that this is the first time that I really understood this play. Superb.

Royal and Derngate Northampton Subscription Season Launch 2012

Made in NorthamptonLast year Mrs Chrisparkle had a “business thing” to attend, and so missed the launch event, which was a shame as it’s an excellent opportunity to whet your appetite for the season ahead, as well as to hob and to nob with the great and the good. Fortunately this year she was able to come too, so we both headed off to the Royal eager with anticipation.

Our host for the evening again was Laurie Sansom, not only Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate, but also director of, inter alia, such treats as the recent Eden End, Duchess of Malfi and Spring Storm. Thank heavens he shows no sign of wanting to move from Northampton.

The BacchaeStarting at the end of the season, he first took us through the three plays that will make up the Festival of Chaos productions, which will themselves be part of the London 2012 Festival, and part of the Cultural Olympiad. It’s great to have Northampton and the R&D recognised at this level. All three are to be directed by Mr Sansom – as they’re his three favourite plays of all time. A new version of Euripides’ Bacchae is the first of the three, and the first surprise of the evening is that it will be presented at the Chronicle and Echo building, in the disused printing area. Dionysus alongside industrial machinery? Sounds atmospherically intriguing, and I’m really excited about this one.

Blood WeddingThe second Chaos show, if I can call it that, which will be played in rotation with The Bacchae, is an adaptation of Lorca’s Blood Wedding by Tommy Murphy. I’ve never seen a straightforward production of Blood Wedding and I don’t think this will be one either. Mr Murphy wrote “Holding the Man” which came to London a while ago, which I didn’t see, but I understand was both desperately funny and desperately sad, which sounds like a decent mix for Lorca.

Hedda GablerThe third Chaos production is to be Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, which Laurie Sansom said can be likened to the Female Hamlet. We saw the production at the Oxford Playhouse a couple of years ago which was quite good, with Rosamund Pike and Tim McInnerney. Ms Pike was a miserable presence from the start, which I’m sure is one way of reading the role but I wonder if a Laurie Sansom version might have more light and shade. It’ll be good to have some meaty drama though. These three plays are nothing if not meaty.

Ladies in LavenderWorking back, Laurie Sansom then introduced us to Shaun McKenna who has adapted the Judi Dench and Maggie Smith film Ladies in Lavender for the stage. It’s all about how two rather stale lives are changed by the sudden appearance of a third person – washed up on the beach. This sounds like it should be an extremely classy production, as the second – and most major – surprise of the night is that the Judi Dench role will be played by none other than Hayley Mills. That is some coup. If that wasn’t enough Ms Mills joined us by Skype from New York for a brief interview. If I have a slight concern, I wonder who will play the Maggie Smith role – will the production manage the right balance between the two characters? Time will tell, but on the face of it this looks amazing.

OedipussyAnd bringing us back to almost the present, Emma Rice came on to tell us about the new Spymonkey production, Oedipussy, which opens in February. I’ve not seen Spymonkey before but I think I am going to like them. It sounds like it’s going to be well wacky, and then some. The four Spymonkey actors later came on stage themselves and introduced their idea of the play in their own way within a superbly funny playlet. The impetus to go Greek was apparently as a result of a damning comment by a critic who basically thought they should grow up and do something adult. Gosh, I do hope I like the show otherwise they might wreak their revenge. According to their website, the show contains incest, violence, mutilation, strobes, nudity and chorus work. I’m not certain their clowning backgrounds will help you with your Classics degree – expect more Greeks Behaving Badly.

In other news, there is to be a new friends’ scheme called The Artistic Director’s Circle which gives you enviable access to the backstage world of the theatre; and an encouraging announcement that 2012’s Christmas play in the Royal will be Dickens’ Christmas Carol. I understand it’s currently pre-embryonic in development but I’m sure it will fit perfectly in the Royal environment.

So there it is, 2012’s Made in Northampton season in a nutshell. We’re very lucky to have such a destination theatre in our midst and I am sure it will be a season to remember. Can’t wait!

Review – Another theatrical catch-up post

I really must keep up to date with these entries. I’m disappointing myself.

ian maxwell fisherSunday March 28th saw us at the Lilian Baylis theatre at the Stage Door of Sadler’s Wells to see the Lost Musical, Paris, by Cole Porter. If you don’t know, Lost Musicals is a fantastic thing. They dig up shows that haven’t seen the light of day for yonks and then perform them on an empty stage with just chairs and a piano. We’ve seen seven or eight of these over the years and they never fail to delight. Anne ReidThis year’s show, Paris, (it’s the one where “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” first appeared), is one of the funniest and most entertaining we have seen. The cast includes the wonderful Anne Reid who completely steals it. All hail the miraculous Ian Marshall Fisher who puts these things together. There are two more on this year, I confess we haven’t booked for them and I fear it may be too late to get decent seats. Ah well, there’s always next year.

Hedda GablerGood Friday, April 2nd, we saw Hedda Gabler at the Oxford Playhouse. Front of House at the Oxford Playhouse were obviously having a bad hair day. It’s always been a wonderful theatre, I remember it from when I was a teenager going there with Mum. And as a student, I was their College Rep. Happy days. But it’s not a good idea to have just one position where you can buy programmes when it’s a full house, and then only when they require you to have the correct change…. And why have they removed the signs that say Seats 1-10 this way, Seats 11-20 that way, we were all walking over one another to go in the right direction. Sigh.

Tim McInnernyAnyway it was a very good production of Hedda Gabler; Ms Gabler herself played by Rosamund Pike was a very dismal person right from the start. It was never a good idea to let that woman anywhere near those pistols. It was great to see Tim McInnerny again, I last saw him in a student production of Measure for Measure on the very same stage and I am pleased to say I gave him a glowing review in a student newspaper. My hunch was right, he came good. I didn’t enjoy the show quite as much as I thought I would, and it brought back memories of a more thrilling Janet Suzman in the role circa 1977, maybe it was my age!

Sondheim Birthday ConcertThen last Sunday, April 4th (Easter Day, you may remember) we saw a celebration for Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday at the Derngate in Northampton, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the wonderful Maria Friedman, with the also wonderful (if not quite as much) Graham Bickley and Daniel Evans. It was a most jolly and entertaining affair. They started off with a concert version of Merrily We Roll Along, none of which I had heard before and it certainly made me want to see The Real Show. Maria FriedmanMuch of the rest of the evening brought back memories of Side by Side by Sondheim, but with some twists: a gay version of “Getting Married” – with Amy now Jamie – which worked pretty well. Daniel Evans and Maria Friedman in bed doing “Barcelona” was a hoot, and her “Send in the Clowns” was most moving. There was a fabulous symphonic suite containing about three songs from Sweeney Todd; and then some more Todd songs, including A Little Priest in which Ms Friedman forgot the lyrics, which shows that even the divine are human. It was a great night and left you buzzing for more.