Hedda Tesman at the Minerva Theatre Chichester review ***

Hedda Tesman

Minerva Theatre Chichester, 26th September 2019

This counts as a disappointment. Not because of the source material. Hedda Gabler for goodness sake. Nor the cast though I will come back to this. There were plenty of actors on show, Haydn Gwynne, Anthony Calf, Jonathan Hyde, Natalie Simpson and Irfan Shamji, who have stood out and given much pleasure in previous performances. Anna Fleischle’s design was as accomplished as her previous work, realistic and spacious. And I think Holly Race Roughan’s direction, (this is the first time I have seen the work of this Headlong associate), was as faithful to the adapted text and action as possible. It was never dull, full of thoughtful detail and as robust a plot as the day Ibsen dreamt it up in 1891.

No I mean it was a disappointment as I was hoping for so much more. The idea of taking one of, maybe the, greatest female roles in theatre and reworking it, to move the story forward not just to the modern day, but also to age Hedda, George and Brack by three decades, was intriguing. And Cordelia Lynn, whose adaptation of Three Sisters for the Almeida, was so successful, (even if Rebecca Frecknall’s direction over-egged the indeterminate), seemed like just the woman for the job. And text wise she was. It’s just that the premise didn’t deliver on its promise.

We start with level-headed cleaner Bertha (Rebecca Oldfield) sorting out the slightly fusty country house that George and Hedda have returned to from the US. When Anthony Calf’s George breezes in he is recognisably an older, and even more painfully underachieving, version of his younger self who hasn’t yet made it to professor but is still buoyed up by innate enthusiasm. Hedda herself, shuffling in in dressing gown and slippers, is now brimful with regret and reflects this in every, often cruel and acerbic, word. She is a Tesman now through and through, middle-aged and largely “invisible”, the Gabler of her youth a distant memory. Thea Tesman (Natalie Simpson) is now the daughter that Hedda was carrying in the original play and not the rival for Eilert, now Elijah’s, (Irfan Shamji) affection. To say mother and daughter, who is the same age as Hedda in the original, weren’t close would be something of an understatement. Thea “trapped” Hedda in the marriage, (postpartum depression is hinted at), motherhood robbed her of her own academic career and duty, in the form of Daddy Gabler, the general whose giant portrait is one of the first things to find a place in the new home, has kept her there. Threatening, amongst other things, to burn your child’s hair, as we discover, was probably never going to engender much in the way of affection.

George is working on improving his big idea but it is plain his intellect still lags behind Elijah. Thea, who has left her husband, is in love with that intellect and thinks she can “rescue” Elijah from his depression and excessive drinking, as she works with him on the sequel to his best-seller. The affair with a younger Hedda still haunts him. Brack (Jonathan Hyde) is still a shit-stirring perv and Aunt Julie (Jacqueline Clarke). Boys’ drunken night out, the temptation of Thea and Elijah’s manuscript, (no USB sticks here), the pair of pistols, Elijah’s messy death, Brack’s blackmail and …. well you know the end, are are still intact. But …. Ibsen’s puissant plot only works if you are invested in the set-up.

And here, I am afraid, I was not. Not because I couldn’t believe that Hedda would have stuck around, though I had my doubts, but because, having done so, she would then have taken this way out. Some Ibsen works because the characters seek to escape the past. Others, like Hedda Gabler, because they fear their future. To use old Henrik’s genius as a point of departure often pay dividends but to mix up chronology and therefore motivation, as here, did not. Haydn Gwynne did her admirable best to solve this conundrum but never quite cracked it, too much self-loathing, and, though it pains me to say it, having seen his air of gentle vulnerability fit the bill perfectly in Ms Lynne’s razor-sharp satire One for Sorrow at the Royal Court and Joe White’s outstanding debut play Mayfly at the Orange Tree, Irfan Shamji seemed completely miscast as Elijah.

In some ways given the space, the cast, the top notch creatives (Ruth Chan’s music, complete with off stage tinkling hinting at Hedda’s past pianistic akills,George Dennis’s sound, Zoe Spurr’s lighting) I sort of wished Cordelia Lynn had abandoned the Ibsen plot and explored some of the more tantalising relationships that she opened up. The scenes between this Hedda and the very fine Natalie Simpson as Thea for example showed this potential. Envy of Thea in the original, and the denigration this fosters, partly defines and explains Hedda, (along with the conflicted Daddy worship). And, from this, maybe draw out more explicitly the contrasts between the economic, class and emotional condition of the, now four, women in the play, and how societal change has impacted recent generations.

So all in all not quite up to Headlong’s best who, when they get it right (All My Sons, Mother Courage, This House, People, Places & Things, Junkyard, American Psycho, 1984, Chimerica, The Effect, Medea, Enron), are just about the finest purveyors of theatre in this country. Still a good idea with plenty to admire but one that, like its lead, seemed to lose the courage of its convictions the longer it went on.

Honour at the Park Theatre review ***

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Honour

Park Theatre 200, 1st October 2018

Never, ever, marry a writer. That’s the main lesson I learnt from Honour. Jessica Murray-Smith’s 2003 play, much revived, which premiered at the NT with Ellen Atkins and Corin Redgrave, tracks the break up of a 32 year marriage when literary heavyweight George falls for calculating younger woman journalist Claudia. He leaves behind bewildered wife Honor, whose successful writing career was cut short when daughter Sophie, who is pretty livid about all of this, came along.

Across its two hours or so there is no doubt that Ms Murray-Smith covers all the bases. George’s priggish self-satisfaction. The hypocritical, “mid-life crisis”, vanity that allows him to fall for Claudia despite mocking a friend who does similar. His blustering erudition. Honor’s sacrifice of career and legacy to “support” George and bring up Sophie. Her shock, bemusement, anger and acceptance of what has happened to her. The generational gap between her and Claudia who has put career ahead of relationship and sees others in the light of what they can do for her. “Some women use loyalty as a way of justifying their sacrifice of themselves”. Claudia’s manifest certainty, at least until it starts to go wrong, as it was inevitably going to do, with George. Sophie’s anger with her Dad and exasperation with her Mum, and the gap in academic success, if not emotional intelligence, between her and Claudia, her near predecessor at Cambridge. The fading of passion in marriage, the value of monogamy, the betrayal of adultery, the idea of honour in love.

Yet the whole thing is curiously bloodless, as if the characters are acting out their reactions to each other and the situation. Which of course they are. But what I mean is the dialogue itself just doesn’t always persuade. This is not because these people lack eloquence and the ability to express themselves. Quite the reverse. They are INTELLECTUALS and that is how they talk. All the time. About everything that happens. Perhaps this is exactly how people of this class and position would behave in this situation. It is hard to connect though especially when a scene is contrived to explain to us the difference between naturalism and realism in drama.

This is nothing to do with the cast however. Producers Tiny Fires have assembled a super quartet, and under director Paul Robinson, I have to think they delivered the lines exactly as intended. If anything Katie Brayben as Claudia, who shows here that she is so much more than a musical star, and Natalie Simpson as Sophie outshone even the venerables Henry Goodman and Imogen Stubbs. I have been fortunate enough to see pretty much every professional stage performance of Ms Simpson (The Cardinal at Southwark Playhouse, as Ophelia in the Simon Godwin Hamlet opposite Paapa Essiedu, as Cordelia in the last RSC Lear, in Melly Still’s very fine RSC Cymbeline and as Juliet in Joe Hill-Gibbons’s Young Vic Measure for Measure). She is going to go a very, very long way.

Liz Cooke simple, blue set, marked with lighting strips and with a natty curl in one corner (the Park 200 has go in-the-round for this production) is intended to evoke a competitive space, a boxing ring. This is a similar conceit to that seen in Mike Bartlett’s Cock at the recent Chichester revival, also a four hander about a love triangle but, I think, far more successful, largely because the dialogue of the protagonists is riddled with uncertainty and rationality of behaviour is in short supply (Cock at the Minerva Theatre review ****).

With actors of this quality on this form, and with its squarely “middle-class” concerns (why is that the elite always insists on calling itself “middle-class”?) and flavours, I think this probably deserves, and may well get, a wider audience. Just make sure you put on your best speaking voice if you go.