There is much to recommend Laurie Sansom’s revival of Hedda Gabler in this big week for Ibsen: a bewitching, if vocally underpowered, lead performance by Emma Hamilton; a cleanly conceived and satisfying design by Ruth Sutcliffe, well lit by Philip Gladwell: a true sense of the play’s rhythm.
But, oh dear, why should anyone have to endure Andrew Upton’s Aussie “version” (first written for his wife, Cate Blanchett, in Sydney) when we have so many fine translations of our own?
Lex Shrapnel’s splendid, sweaty Lovborg claims to have “reconceived history” in his controversial new tome, as if he were the Francis Fukuyama of the fjords. Hedda, oscillating flirtatiously between a dull husband, JorgenTesman, and an oily admirer, Judge Brack, suggests that “we could triangulate over tea.”
Weak puns are part of the Aussie-isms, too: a drinks-dispensing Hedda asks her friend and rival Mrs Elvsted (nicely done by Matti Houghton), if she’d like a “punch”; the Freudian sexuality of the piece is over-cooked, with Brack, “the only cock in the yard” (accurate enough) accused of entering the house by the “Brack” passage.
Publishing and fertility are the interweaving metaphorical strands of the play. They need no emphasis: an appropriate tact surrounds Hedda’s pregnancy (unlike, for instance, the virtually vomiting Fiona Shaw long ago at the Abbey); I love the way Emma Hamilton – the second stunning, slender Ibsen heroine of the week, following Hattie Morahan in A Doll’s House at the Young Vic – sways and sashays round the stage like a flower in the breeze.
And she won’t have any other flowers for competition: she viciously stuffs the floral displays in a rubbish bag on re-entering the house after the honeymoon, just as she shoves Lovborg’s manuscript in the stove; I was only surprised that she didn’t commit that incineration with a muttered “Burn, baby, burn” or two.
The wild piano playing could be wilder, but everything else about Hamilton’s performance reeks of stunted sexuality and lubricious lassitude. And Jack Hawkins makes of Tesman an appealing, callow enthusiast who touchingly suffers from the delusion that “these are my days, this is my time.” His joy at finding his old slippers is as great as Hedda’s at running her fingers through Mrs Elvsted’s hair.