Review: Hedda Gabler at Sherman Theatre

*disclaimer: I was given free tickets to Hedda Gabler at Sherman Theatre in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.

Hedda Gabler

“a thought-provoking and pleasantly intense drama”

Opening with a beautifully haunting scene of characters carefully placing a vase of flowers on the stage to decorate it, Hedda Gabler at the Sherman Theatre peaks your interest from the start. The play is constantly captivating, brilliantly acted and even more brilliantly directed, making for a thought-provoking and pleasantly intense drama.

Hedda Gabler, originally written by Henrik Ibsen and re-imagined for the Sherman by Brian Friel, with direction from Chelsea Walker, tells the story of newlyweds Hedda and George and the audience quickly learns of Hedda’s feelings of being trapped and unnoticed. Although written in the late 1800s, Hedda Gabler portrays aspects of society that remain hugely prominent today; we learn that success is measured by a good job, a big house with lots of furnishings, getting married and having a baby. Less consideration is given to the well-being and mental health of its people.

Hedda Gabler questions the way that society’s expectations of success trap us and make women especially lose their independence.

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen at the Sherman Theatre, starring Heledd Gwynn
Caroline Berry (Bertha), Marc Antolin (George Tesman), Richard Mylan (Judge Brack), Heledd Gwynn (Hedda Gabler), Alexandria Riley (Thea Elvsted), Jay Saighal (Eilert Loevborg) and Nia Roberts (Juliana Tesman)
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Early on in the play we see the mismatching of newlyweds Hedda and George. Hedda, played brilliantly by Heledd Gwynn appears blunt, cold and upright, whereas George by Marc Antolin is bouncy, endearing and warm in every way. In this, we see why Hedda was drawn to him but we learn quicker than characters realise that Hedda never loved him. Exactly why she married him was never fully explored, but we can assume that we can blame this on society’s expectations.

With every lean on the table, carefully placed footstep or pronunciation of a word, Heledd Gwynn is phenomenal at playing our title character. Her elegant silk green dress only exaggerates her feminine power.

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen at the Sherman Theatre, starring Heledd Gwynn
Heledd Gwynn (Hedda Gabler)
Photo credit: Mark Douet

The play involves a handful of characters but requires listening to conversations intently to pick up on the detail that is often between the lines. As the past and present of the relationships and ordeals of Eilert Loevborg and Thea Elvsted are interwoven with the married couple, George’s position of his professorship is somewhat threatened, and his attention turns to his career and Eilert’s upcoming novel, ignoring his wife completely.

In reality, George as a character does nothing wrong. He is innocent, naive, excitable and funny – his only real flaw being that he fails to notice his wife or indeed her troubles. The way this is exerted in the play is excellent, with Hedda tipping out vases of flower and water onto the floor without even a glance from one of her male counterparts. She walks along a tabletop without being seen and in the final scene, exits the premises without a word from anyone.

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen at the Sherman Theatre, starring Heledd Gwynn
Marc Antolin (George Tesman) and Nia Roberts (Juliana Tesman)
Photo credit: Mark Douet

In an attempt to destroy something beautiful but all the while being terrified of a scandal and what other people will think of or say about her, Hedda makes choices that her husband fails to notice, but are fatal nonetheless.

The ways in which the set, design and lighting are used are perfect for representing Hedda’s internal struggle of feeling claustrophobic. A large stage shrinks as the lighting only illuminates a small portion of it for where all the story takes place; a descending cage from above traps Hedda from the top down; an open space blocked by basic furniture is very open, yet incredibly closing at the same time. A chilling music plays in the background for a majority of the play, and the way papers appear to be chaotically placed – but are definitely very well thought out – trap Hedda in her own home in the final scene had me edging to the front of my seat in anticipation for the climax.

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen at the Sherman Theatre, starring Heledd Gwynn
Heledd Gwynn (Hedda Gabler) and Jay Saighal (Eliert Loevborg)
Photo credit: Mark Douet

The way flowers are used throughout is a notable addition – flowers are beautiful in their prime but whither quickly, and will do so even more without the proper care, much like Hedda herself. Flowers are often given and received at two key events: weddings and funerals, and in marrying George, a significant part of Hedda dies.

In the role of Eilert Loevborg, Jay Saighal does an excellent job of slowly descending back into his old and damaging ways throughout the play: a very put-together and well-established novelist is not who we see by the end. His relationships with Hedda and Thea are as contrasting as their are passionate, and in his final scene with “soulmate” Thea, played by Alexandria Riley, the audience can see how both their hearts break together. Alexandria as Thea does an excellent job throughout at being contrasting to Heledd as Hedda; she is more open and warm, certainly less frightening and her morals are rarely questioned, whereas Hedda’s are askew more than once.

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen at the Sherman Theatre, starring Heledd Gwynn
Heledd Gwynn (Hedda Gabler) and Alexandria Riley (Thea Elvsted)
Photo credit: Mark Douet

While doing a good job at keeping the suspense alive, I struggled to really understand the role of Judge Brack in the play, performed by Richard Mylan. His character certainly fed information into the play, but the point of him to me was unclear.

Caring and endearing Juliana Tesman, played by Nia Roberts, and devoted house-keeper Bertha, played by Caroline Berry, are great additions to the play, both giving very believable performances.

Hedda Gabler is a play of passion, beauty and society that, although written in the late 1800s, will truly continue to resonate with audiences today. Hedda Gabler plays at Sherman Theatre until 2 November.


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