Hedda Gabler

Written by Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Matthew Lloyd
Liverpool Playhouse (23rd March - 15th April 2006)

Reviewed by Adam Ford

When Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote Hedda Gabler in 1890, he was coming to the end of a career which had gone a long way to changing people’s attitudes towards theatre. Though many of his contemporaries were moralistic plays where ‘good’ always triumphs over ‘bad’, he consistently produced work that was rooted in dark psychology and grim symbolism.

The character of Hedda Gabler is renowned as being amongst the most challenging of female roles in theatre. The sheer complexity of her seemingly contradictory nature must be a nightmare for performers, since almost every line can be performed several different ways, depending on tone of voice and subtleties of body language. In the past, the part has gone to such celebrated actresses as Glenda Jackson, Ingrid Bergman and Cate Blanchett. In this production, Aigburth-born former Brookside star Gillian Kearney follows in those illustrious footsteps, delighting the audience with a captivating and awe-inspiring portrayal of the anti-heroine.

Everyone else seems to think that Hedda should be happy. She’s just returned from a honeymoon with her up-and-coming academic husband, and when we first meet her she is waking from her first night in an expensive new house. But she feels trapped by expectations of how middle class wives are meant to behave, and her only creative outlet is her often spiteful manipulation of those around her. Soon enough, the controlling soon gets out of control.

There were many fine performances to admire. Tom Smith played Hedda’s husband Dr Tesman as somehow both childishly annoying and work-obsessed, squeezing every last drop of out of his role. Jasper Britton as Judge Brack added appropriate gravitas and sombre movements to the mixture. But everyone was left trailing in the wake of Gillian Kearney in the title role. Whether reclining on her chaise longue or stalking across Ruari Murchison’s exquisitely designed set, she commanded all about her with perfectly articulated emotion. If the potentially powerful ending was slightly underplayed by the rest of the cast, it did little to take the sheen off a dazzling two hours, and the cheers rang out long after the stage was empty.

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