Review – Hedda Gabler, Richmond Theatre

Tuesday 16 March 2010

“She’s not very nice, is she?” was Andrew’s considered verdict on the titular anti-heroine of Henrik Ibsen‘s classic play Hedda Gabler as he slurped a further mouthful of free wine* at the interval.

Andrew may or may not have been giving Hedda a first crack. He couldn’t really remember. He claims to have read it and thought he may have seen it at Stratford (upon Avon, obviously) many moons ago; certainly he has a Hedda in his head. But whatever the back-story, the Whingers were drawn back to the gorgeous Richmond Theatre (the interior really does look as though it’s carved from ivory) for a second night running, this time to see Rosamund Pike playing the role often posited as the female equivalent of Hamlet, presumably because the heroine’s actions and motivations are all over the place rich in ambiguity, lending themselves to a range of interpretations.

Anyway, attracted by four-star raves for her performance in this touring production (with a clear eye on the West End), a poster that put the Whingers in mind of Adam & The Ants and Juliet Bravo herself** in the cast, it looked like it might be worth the journey***.

Plus it had been a long time since Phil had given Hedda a whirl. It must, after all, be getting on for 20 years or so since he saw Mrs Fiske gave her Hedda. He could remember little of the plot apart from the famous ending and the iconic last line so his previous dalliances with Hedda were really only slightly less vague than Andrew’s

So, what’s Pike’s Hedda about? Well, she’s very Amazonian – á la Hannah Waddingham, we thought – and smartly dressed. And an utterly mean-spirited, manipulative, murderous, devious, smoking, destructive bitch of a wife. The Whingers warmed to her instantly.

She shines as brightly as the Act 4 spotlight which blinded the front nine rows of the stalls and against her the rest of the cast sadly seemed almost as dull as the gloomy Acts 1, 2 and 3 lighting which lulled Andrew into semi-slumber within minutes. In fairness to Andrew (for once) it has to be said that the lighting was shockingly bad. Clearly something was not right. Four-time Olivier Award winning lighting designer Mark Henderson can not possibly have designed Monday’s random arrangement of 40W light-bulbs which ensured that every character’s face was in the shadow of another’s. Unless it was a metaphor. We’re not very good on reading metaphors in lighting designs.

It did lead the Whingers to wonder how lighting designs get reproduced in touring productions. Presumably the lighting designers don’t follow the productions round the country running up and down ladders with a bayonet bulb clamped between their teeth and a tea towel to get the old one out with without burning their hands. And if they do, it must be as unsatisfactory as trying to prepare a meal in someone else’s kitchen which is always twice as hard as doing it in your own and the result is never quite as good.

Anyway, hopefully that’s all sorted by now.

Phil was distracted by the plain, flat walls of Anthony Ward‘s easy-to-tour set. If you’re doing minimalism it has to be perfect and there were some nasty rucks around the bell pull (early light switch?) which at least gave him something to try and focus on in the Stygian gloom. Still, Ward is forgiven by dint of the fabulous frocks he has run up for Pike on his trusty Singer.

But whilst trying hard not to give anything away to people whose grasp of Hedda is even flimsier than the Whingers’, there are gunshots in Hedda which is a risky prospect in Richmond. It’s one of the few theatres where the Whingers know they will be safely under the audience’s average age and it made even their tickers miss a beat. No wonder there was an ambulance outside the theatre througout the evening. Of course, this may also have been a response to the widespread TB which is clearly sweeping through the salons of Richmond although judging by the noises of the woman two rows behind at least one of them was simply coughing up fur balls.

Anyway, once again the Whingers were struck by how ahead of his time Ibsen was. Even the first scene between Hedda and Aunt Ju Ju (Anna Carteret) grabbed the Whingers’ attention with a discussion about a hat, cleverly giving an early nod to Hedda’s character and smartly foreseing the Whingers’ interest in all things millinery. Bonus points for that.

And of course the whole thing is really just gloriously ridiculous melodrama which strains credibility at every turn. How stupid can her husband really be? What’s Hedda doing with him in the first place? Does she really expect to get away with burning manuscripts and lending people pistols with the request that they shoot themselves? If this is the “realism” Ibsen is so famous for, bring on what came before! That’s what we say.

On the whole, director Adrian Noble seems not entirely convinced. Pike gets to play it big and evil but nobody else really does although Tim McInnerny‘s excellent blackmailing Judge Brack did lead the Whingers to fantasise about what George Sanders might have done with the role. Phil was quite taken with Zoe Waites‘ Mrs Elvsted. Neither Whinger felt they’d have been fighting Elvsted and Gabler for the affections of Colin Tierney‘s miserable Loevborg, but it takes all sorts.

The Whingers couldn’t disagree with whispers of  “she’s good” which flushed around the Richmond Theatre stalls but sadly Andrew forgot to jump up and shout “Don’t tell him, Pike!” when she is asked about the fate of the manuscript. But hopefully a West End transfer will ensue and the opportunity will come round again and with better lighting.


* We got invited. Aren’t we grand?

** Yes, we know that Anna Carteret played Inspector Kate Longton not Juliet Bravo and we’ve visited that in previous posts thank you.

*** Any theatre that can attract punters who rudely bark, “When’s the Tom Conti?”  at the box office staff **** (as it did last night) and audience members who have no compunction about reorganising their row so that they can stretch their legs on the end gets the Whingers thumbs up. If only that man in row B 13 had been there. Perhaps he was there. Perhaps he’d been sedated.

**** To which the answer is 17th May. In Wife After Death.


4 Responses to “Review – Hedda Gabler, Richmond Theatre”

  1. Hmmm. Seeing this in Oxford on Good Friday, so I’ll let you know if they’ve bought some more bulbs.

    I remember watching Tim McInnerney bestriding the Oxford Playhouse stage like a colossus as a student, must be about 75 years ago now…. he was great then so I’m looking forward to seeing how he is progressed in the intervening lifetime.

  2. A Clown Says:

    Hehe, I’d forgotten about that blinding light. I took it to represent what it would be like to feel Hedda’s coruscating glare on you…
    I really enjoyed it, and not just because of the lovely lovely dresses. However, I did feel like the youngest person in there by far!

  3. Harriet Says:

    I saw this in Nottingham yesterday! I was slightly concerned to be sitting in Row G after what you mentioned about the lighting, but no, my eyesight hasn’t been permanently damaged.
    However, I did have a good laugh at the ten-second delay between the sound of the curtains being opened to the room getting any brighter…
    And as you said, I was at least 35 years below the average age of the audience.

    As my first experience of Hedda Gabler I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  4. Tom S Says:

    Spot on about Richmond audiences. The Orange Tree, which deserves better, is similar – sometimes you wonder if some of the audience have actually died halfway through…

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