Hedda Gabler

Henrik Ibsen

Royal and Derngate

Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton

From 06 July 2012 to 28 July 2012

Review by Pete Wood

At a time when many of the country's theatres seem given over to farces and musicals, a trend to which even the National Theatre with all its resources and loyal audiences is not immune, the commitment of Laurie Sansom, the artistic director of Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton, to programming what the director Peter Brook described as 'holy' theatre, is to be loudly applauded.

The current production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, the first to be staged this year with another due to follow later this year at the Old Vic, forms the concluding part of a trilogy billed by Sansom as a 'Festival of Chaos'.

I'm not certain as to why the audience was not larger on the night I saw the production which has earned very positive reviews.

Sansom is a talent to watch and his predecessor, Rupert Goold, went on to critical and commercial success on a larger stage in Liverpool, Chichester, Stratford-upon-Avon and London with such acclaimed productions as Macbeth, with Patrick Stewart, The Tempest (ditto) and The Glass Menagerie with Jessica Lange.

Sansom, on the evidence of work such as Spring Storm and Beyond the Horizon (2009), both of which went on to transfer to the National Theatre, last year's The Duchess of Malfi, and now Hedda is clearly destined to follow suit.

One of the first decisions facing a director on selecting a play is which performing version to work with. Sansom opts for a recent version by Andrew Upton, a choice which prompted strong criticism from one national reviewer who was profoundly irritated by what he described as 'Aussie-isms' and 'weak puns'.

I was braced for the worst but had to wait until the final moments of the play almost for these to arrive, some sexually-charged double entendres between Hedda and Judge Brack which admittedly would have been utterly unthinkable for the time in which Hedda was set but which don't seem too outre in our own day.

Otherwise the text seems to be perfectly acceptable, finding the right register for the various conversations that thread the play—the teasing banter of Brack and Hedda, the dull earnestness of Jorgen Tesman, Hedda's husband, and the passionate, lyrical exchanges between Hedda and her former lover, Lovborg.

The next decision is who to cast as Hedda, one of the greatest of roles for an actress, likened by some to a female Hamlet. Sansom chooses well here too with the comparatively inexperienced Emma Hamilton, probably best known to for her aappearances in TV's The Tudors. She is certainly beautiful enough to have plausibly turned a town's heads and she also has the craft to back up her looks.

If she doesn't expunge the recent memory of Rosamund Pike in a recent production by Adrian Noble, who brought real venom to the role, she perhaps make Hedda more fathomable, her maglignity less motiveless and unforgivable.

The great virtue of Sansom's production is to foreground the failure of nerve by Hedda, the act of moral cowardice that leads her to marriage with Torgen.

She betrays her passionate nature and breaks with Lovborg because she is afraid of the gossip, an act that contrasts with the behaviour of Thea Elvsted who walks out on her own loveless marriage. It is no surprise that the portrait of Hedda's late father, the General, dominates from the living room wall.

Best of the supporting cast is Jay Villiers as Judge Brack. Less obviously sinister than some, he dances in the exchanges with Hedda with grace and charm but with steel increasingly to the fore as the play wears on. I also enjoyed Janice Mckenzie's droll Julie Walters-esque take on the maid, Berte, for whom the world of her betters is a terrifying and never to be fathomed mystery.

Tribute must also be paid to designer Ruth Sutcliffe for the terrific handsome set, as good as anything I've seen recently. All in all, Sansom and his team have set the standard for the Old Vic to emulate or beat later in the year. Recommended.