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Michael Coveney: Hedda's hoop of fire

Someone said that Hamlet was a hoop that every young actor hoped to jump through, and the same could be said of Hedda Gabler when it comes to actresses. And what about hoops for the older actor? Vanya for the men, perhaps. And for ladies? Lady Macbeth, or Cleopatra?

The thought is prompted by news of Jonathan Slinger being lined up as the next RSC Hamlet, while we are already agog for Sheridan Smith's Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic in September (it's always nice to have something to look forward to when you're on holiday). And this will probably go down as a vintage year for Vanyas. We've already had Roger Allam at Chichester and Iain Glen at the Print Room; the West End will host a Russian Vanya from Moscow and Ken Stott's version within a few days of each other in November. 

No sign yet of Lady M or Cleo, but that's probably because they're not so much hoops (but with just as much hoopla) as great yawning chasms. Edith Evans shied away from the Dunsinane diva on the grounds that there were some pages missing from the script ("Why does she go mad? She was perfectly alright at dinner!"), while even the peerless Vanessa Redgrave has failed no less than three times as the serpent of old Nile.  

Unlike any other major role, perhaps, Hamlet is moulded by the personality of the actor playing him. There is no other way to go, really, so to some extent you can always predict what Hamlet will be like when you buy your ticket. You can be sure that Slinger's Hamlet will not be all that noble, or easily mistaken for a "glass of fashion," and odds on that he will be something of a psychotic, lost little daddy's boy.

The only other Shakespearean role I can think of as similar in this way - moulded by the actor - is Beatrice in Much Ado, who stands or falls by her Benedick but also by her own comic personality. This is why Tamsin Greig was so brilliant as the last RSC Beatrice; she's something very much like her, while Catherine Tate, funny though she is in her own right, simply wasn't. And next week we can check out the RSC's latest busy Bea, when Meera Syal opens in the Courtyard, the theatre the RSC promised to pull down when the new theatre opened across the road (the furious correspondence about this continues in the Stratford Herald). 

Meanwhile, a new Hedda sprang up in Northampton last night when Laurie Sansom's revival opened in the gorgeous Theatre Royal with the comparatively unknown Emma Hamilton in the lead, and very good she is, too. She is bewitching, calculating, flirtatious and brutal.

But her inexperience shows in a lack of vocal variety and power and that elsuive sense of command that goes with greatness in acting. Emma is well worth seeing, and a talent to watch. But she  doesn't stamp the role as her own, as I suspect Sheridan Smith might at the Old Vic. When Sheridan first appeared on my radar with the National Youth Music Theatre I said at once that she could become her own namesake, the next Maggie Smith.

And Maggie has always said (insofar as she has said anything at all) that her happiest career role was Hedda Gabler as directed for the National Theatre by Ingmar Bergman, who knew a thing or two about what makes women tick.

I see that Michael Billington is hailing Hattie Morahan's bravura performance as Ibsen's other great socially evolving feminist, Nora Helmer, in A Doll's House at the Young Vic, as one that elevates her into the front rank, citing similarities with Janet McTeer in the role.

He could well be right. It is by appearing in these great roles that actors define their careers and reputations, which is why it must be so nerve-wracking for them and so wretched when they are deemed to fail. 

Nerve-wracking for their nearest and dearest, too, no doubt. Lex Shrapnel, a very fine Loevborg in Hedda at Northampton, was supported in the stalls last night by his father John Shrapnel, whom he resembles in so many ways.

One way in which he doesn't resemble his dad, John might be the first to agree, is the way in which he exudes a sort of rough-house bohemian charisma that suits Loevborg so well (and suited his Hotspur at the RSC in the Michael Boyd history play series).

Indeed, when John appeared in this play opposite Janet Suzman as Hedda, he played the dry young stick of a husband, George Tesman. "Do you remember who played Loevborg in that production?" he quizzed me, cheekily, in the interval. I was stuck. "Jonathan Kent!"

And then I thought, how odd that I should have remembered John's Tesman, but not Kent's Loevborg. Janet certainly saw vineleaves in Kent's hair; they had a charming offstage romance for some time after that show. But it was a "boring" Tesman played by a very fine actor who made the biggest impression, on me at least, if not on Hedda herself.


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