Elegantly cruel in modern reworking of Hedda Gabler at Chichester Festival Theatre

Haydn Gwynne: Photo Johan Persson
Haydn Gwynne: Photo Johan Persson

REVIEW: Hedda Tesman by Cordelia Lynn, after Henrik Ibsen, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until September 28

Haydn Gwynne gives a remarkable portrait of astonishingly elegant, astonishingly cruel destructiveness in Cordelia Lynn’s modern rewriting of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, a new adaptation which very nearly – but ultimately doesn’t quite – convince.

Lynn’s present-day Hedda finds herself amid all the unopened boxes of a move to a place she hates, shackled to her moderately successful, decent but largely dull historian husband George (beautifully and at times very movingly played by the excellent Anthony Calf).

Isolated, angry and bitter, she finds herself in the perfect – or maybe the very worst – place to ponder an unfulfilled life, a dangerous line of thought given her unhealthy obsession with her dead general father’s pair of pistols.

Gwynne shows us boredom and frustration simmering away. The play’s problem perhaps is that it allows it all to simmer rather too slowly in the first half. This was always going to be a slow-burner, and perhaps ultimately, it is all the stronger for it.

But there are times early on when it demands a patience which it is slow to merit.

In fact, there’s too much time to wonder whether the modern-day setting truly works. Hedda Tesman’s late 19th century original had every reason to feel utterly trapped in the society of her day. Is it so comprehensible that an intelligent modern-day woman should feel equally trapped? Maybe. Maybe not.

But there’s no doubting that things fire up considerably in a vastly superior second half, Gwynne giving us a Hedda who is part victim, but increasingly monster: when the chance comes, she takes it to decide another’s fate.

The moment is genuinely chilling. There’s an almost playful curiosity to her actions in a power game about to go disastrously wrong.

Playing his own game is Jonathan Hyde’s Brack, an old pal you’d really rather not see again, a neighbour you really wouldn’t want to have, a judge who starts to manoeuvre and manipulate the moment he re-enters Hedda’s and George’s life, wandering in – significantly – by the back door.

Suspicions of plagiarism, an estranged daughter, a reformed apparent genius and a lost manuscript help it all hurtle towards the conclusion we know is coming – and it packs a punch, a reflection of the quality of the performances all round. Hyde gives Brack an assurance which ends up repellent; Calf gives George a well-meaning niceness which makes him plausible; and Gwynne’s pressure cooker Hedda eventually blows its lid.

But perhaps the most believable performance comes from Jacqueline Clarke – so natural and so much the kindly old aunt that you could quite believe she’s just vacated her seat in the audience and wandered onto the stage…

All in all, a good night. But certainly, much tighter writing in the first half would make it rather more than that.

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