Hedda Gabler

Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Richard Eyre
Duke of York's Theatre
(2005)

Hedda Gabler publicity image

Richard Eyre has chosen Danse Macabre as the between-scenes theme for his brilliant new staging of Ibsen’s domestic tragedy, Saint-Saëns’ plangent piano riffs and funereal refrain being an apt metaphor for Hedda Gabler attacking her own piano keyboard in angry frustration, but also stalked by the Angel of Death.

The production opened at the Almeida in March, when it was enthusiastically reviewed by my colleague Philip Fisher. Critical acclaim has now ensured its swift transfer to the West End, complete with the original cast, for a ‘strictly limited’ twelve-week season, closing in early August.

Interestingly the stage setting includes a painstaking reproduction of the Almeida’s rough brick cyclorama, providing the ideal backdrop for Rob Howell’s ingenious design. Transparent hangings separate an elegant drawing room from the entrance passage, offering the audience a glimpse of those coming and going, plus the dominating portrait of Hedda’s stern father, General Gabler.

The slender, raven-haired Eve Best makes theatrical history with her standout performance in the title rôle as a headstrong, capricious monster, almost certain to feature in the annual roundup of best acting performances. But not everyone was entirely convinced.

Although her interpretative intelligence and commanding stage presence are never in doubt, some critics were troubled by her tendency to shout and rush about the room when a more measured response could have been equally telling.

Indeed she hardly suggests the bored, patrician daughter of General Gabler. Instead she offers an earthy, vindictive creature, first seen in a seductive, loosely-tied dressing gown, keeping her pregnancy a secret even from herself, but who coyly shrinks from infidelity with Judge Brack and her former lover Eilert Loevborg, friends of her husband who both regularly call.

Driven mad by domestic suffocation, contemptuous of her husband George Tesman, Hedda is sharp with her servant (Sarah Flind) and cruelly rude to George’s aunt (Gillian Raine) who, with the best of motives, promises daily visits to the Tesman household and is longing to start making a layette for her nephew’s first child.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Tesman, not as the usual naive prig, but a serious youthful scholar, just returned from a six month honeymoon and proud of his recently acquired doctorate.

But his true spirit is only revealed when, in the closing moments of the play, he begins his new life’s work collaborating with his natural partner, the fragile Thea Elvsted, played by Lisa Dillon with a touching air of dogged integrity as she and Tesman piece together Loevborg’s lost masterpiece, the original manuscript destroyed in a fit of jealousy by Hedda..

Iain Glen is splendidly watchable as the brazen, predatory Brack, flinging back his jacket suggestively as he slides into the best armchair, while Hedda giggles conspiratorially, just one of director Eyre’s subtle character observations.

A more elusive figure is Jamie Sives as Loevborg, a Caledonian professional rival to Tesman, Thea’s secret lover, a reformed boozer, and for all that, a complete mess as a man, who finally goes to his death clutching one of Hedda’s old army pistols.

I was briefly discomposed when Glen’s Brack, in the middle of a long explanation of the night’s events, suddenly exclaims, “let’s cut to the chase,” which certainly sounds odd when spoken by a character in full fin de siècle costume.

But Eyre has prepared his own zestful new version of Ibsen’s text from a literal translation, which shows him unafraid of anachronisms when they bring a modern audience closer to the characters.

Reviewer: John Thaxter