Review: Hedda Gabler, Sherman Theatre, Cardiff

Brian Friel’s new take on Henrik Ibsen’s classic Hedda Gabler, a tale of a bored housewife tired of the restraints of her new marriage, home and the people in her life, is as fiery as it is dynamic.

The play commences with the 21st century Hedda Gabler, barefoot, in a silk robe, playing an antiquated piano in a dimly lit, modern home.  Then, the remaining cast embark and disembark from the stage, placing flowers in vases around the set, before taking their seats at the rear, primed to enter the constraints of Heddar’s world. Leaving her piano, Hedda faces away from the audience looking back at them.

Directed by Chelsea Walker, Hedda Gabler’s presentation may seem unusual at first. If a cast member isn’t in a scene, they remain visible on the stage, while at other times it may be possible for two scenes to co-exist together, creating a sense of presence but detachment for Hedda as she struggles with ongoing relationships.

Sensual, contemplative, troubling and even bewitching, there are many facets to Heledd Gwynn’s portrayal of the recently married Hedda Gabler (Tesman).  A character that longs to take control of her own destiny, while spurning the unwanted attentions of former lovers, attentive aunts and even her own husband. Miss Gwynn brings an air of wistfulness as she strolls around the home taking a chosen path across the top of a table or sleeping atop the piano. Hedda’s inner frustrations manifest as other characters engage in conversation around her and she begins emptying the earlier placed vases contents on to the floor unchallenged.

Soon, it becomes apparent Hedda is bored as she playfully toys with the emotions of her husband, George (Marc Antolin), his doting aunt, Juliana (Nia Roberts), the Tesman’s long-suffering servant, Bertha (Caroline Berry) their loyal, caring friend, Thea Elvsted (Alexandria Riley) and the intellectual, but impressionable Eilert Loevborg (Jay Saighal).

The pressure steps up a notch as Hedda aims and fires her father’s gun towards another associate, Richard Mylan’s devious Judge Brack. A teasing, flirting manipulator of the highest order, Mylan’s Judge is strong on dialogue, but keeps his portrayal accessible. There are gasps of excitement from the audience as Judge addresses Miss Gwynn’s Hedda from the theatres own seating area, the smouldering gun still levelled at him. Theatre has never been this immersive.

While Hedda Gabler is high on drama, there are also lighter moments. Marc Antolin is Hedda’s husband, George Tesman, a professor, but also an idealist, who wants everything for his wife, his housemaid and his aunts. Antolin frequently crosses the blurred edges from serious drama to character comedy via his reactions and exchanges with other characters, relieving the high tension.

Combining a strong cast with meticulous direction which shifts the on-stage effects from from falling blossom to burning flowers, Hedda Gabler excites, shocks and is ultimately is a theatrical experience like no other.

  • Hedda Gabler runs until November 2 at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre.

  • Photos by Mark Douet

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