NOTE: This review dates from March 2005 and this production's original run at London's Almeida Theatre. For current venue information, see performance listings.
Fresh from big budget musical Mary Poppins, a story of a dysfunctional family and the redemption it receives from the appearance of an airborne nanny, director Richard Eyre now turns to Hedda Gabler, a far more merciless and shatteringly intense portrait of another dysfunctional marriage under irrevocable strain.
Eyre, who has also provided the Almeida’s new version of Ibsen’s 1890 play, says that he was drawn to revive it when he chanced upon an interview in Hello! magazine with “a rich posh young woman who was celebrated for being celebrated… and yet had no talent for anything but self-advertisement.” She was quoted as saying, “I’m afraid I have a great talent for boredom.”
That’s echoed here, of course, by Hedda who tells her friend Judge Brack, “There’s only one thing I have a vocation for – boring myself to death.” She’s just returned from a six-month honeymoon, spent trailing around after her academic husband as her pursued his academic interests, and is already suffocating to death. “You can’t imagine how bored I’m going to be here,” she complains.
But there’s nothing boring about watching the riveting machinations that this ruthless manipulator indulges in as she seeks to keep herself morbidly amused and us bemused. As played by Eve Best, with equal measures of calculation and revulsion at what she’s doing, you simply cannot take your eyes off her. Eyre has said that it was seeing Best in Mourning Becomes Electra at the National (on the same day that he read that Hello! article in a dentist’s waiting room) that convinced him she was “born to play Hedda”, and that it was a sign he should do the play.
Thank heavens for waiting rooms. Best has been rapidly climbing the ranks of our leading young actresses, but she now makes a quantum leap to the very top. Like a cross between Vanessa Redgrave and Fiona Shaw (the latter in the audience herself on press night), Best has height, intensity and a sense of danger, but without the other ladies’ sometimes distracting affectations or mannerisms.
Hers is a harrowing portrait of despair, but Eyre has not made it a one-woman show. Best is powerfully partnered by Lisa Dillon as an old school friend whom she used to torment as a child and Jamie Sives as an ex-flame whose own destruction she also brings about. Benedict Cumberbatch and Iain Glen also make strong contributions as Hedda’s husband and confidante respectively.
- Mark Shenton