Review – Hedda Gabler, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th July 2012

Hedda GablerWhen I discovered that the third play in the Festival of Chaos season was to be Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler I was slightly disappointed, as we had only recently seen another production at the Oxford Playhouse with Rosamund Pike and Tim McInnerny. Why couldn’t it be Ghosts? Or The Master Builder? Or Rosmersholm?

Emma HamiltonHowever, it’s an inspired choice. It dovetails perfectly with The Bacchae and Blood Wedding as a fine example of when someone goes against the grain and does something completely unsuited to their times, society and mores. Hedda has all the hallmarks of a Dionysian character, as director Laurie Sansom points out in his very useful programme notes. A bully as a child, Hedda as a young woman has undefined but we guess potentially impure liaisons with the writer Lovborg, which come to an end when he seeks the equivalent of 19th century Rehab. She is now stuck with her worthy but dull and completely incompatible new husband; but when Lovborg returns, Dionysus within her comes to the surface, not only in how she reacts with him, but in her feelings of jealousy and revenge with the feeble Mrs Elvsted, with whom Lovborg now seems romantically entwined, and also how she deals long term with her whole life situation. It is an exquisite play, and this production brings forward all the delicacies of the plot and brings to life real people with real emotions contrasting strongly with the reserved restrictions of the era.

Jack HawkinsThe set is extremely well devised, with four distinct acting areas each going back further and smaller away from the stage, giving an additional visual suggestion of depth to Ibsen’s words and characters. There’s also the garden area outside the French Windows where characters go to smoke and their lurking outside enhances the feeling of claustrophobia. The lighting works really well, with the different times of day nicely suggested coming through the windows. I won’t spoil it for you, but the lighting in the final minute of the play focusing on the back door is stunningly effective.

Jay VilliersEmma Hamilton plays Hedda Gabler with immense subtlety. Intensely manipulative, revengeful, cruel, deliberately hurtful; but with the ability to turn on the sweetest of smiles, you can absolutely understand why Tesman fell for her. Her words say one thing but her body says something else; you’ve never seen anyone throw away dying flowers with such purpose. Tesman’s possession of Lovborg’s manuscript opens up a range of possibilities for Hedda, and you know she’s going to do something wicked with it but you can’t quite tell what; and that’s partly down to Ibsen’s great writing but also Ms Hamilton’s superbly plotting facial expressions. Technically, she speaks with great clarity – always appreciated – and she brings forward all the light and shade of Hedda’s character. The last Hedda we saw, Rosamund Pike, started as a bitch, maintained bitchiness throughout and ended as a bitch. Emma Hamilton’s is a far more rounded and satisfying interpretation as she made Hedda’s motivations and emotions really clear – whilst still being a bitch.

Lex ShrapnelThe whole cast is excellent. Jack Hawkins as Tesman is completely convincing as the “good” man, but insensitive to the needs of others (especially his wife) and more engaged with his cerebrum than any other part of his body. His childish enthusiasm for all the things Hedda finds tedious is a brilliant portrayal of how different the two characters are. There’s a lovely scene where Hedda is taking Lovborg through the photograph album and calls on Tesman to explain the pictures. He takes her sarcasm as a compliment; it really sums up so much about both of them.

Matti HoughtonJay Villiers is Judge Brack and superbly blends the sophisticated charm of his influential position with a steely determined sense of self-preservation. It’s an immaculate performance, both amusing and slightly threatening. I also liked Lex Shrapnel as Lovborg, all wild haired and distressed, feeling the pain and torture of every moment, strong against temptation at first, only to give into Dionysus and his alcohol to shattering effect later. He’s a fine actor, very much a chip off the old block as I remember really enjoying his father John’s expressive performance as Andrey in Jonathan Miller’s 1976 production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

Sue WallaceMatti Houghton is great as the earnest Mrs Elvsted, blindly optimistic about her relationship with Lovborg, thinking Hedda can be trusted with her private matters, seeing her dreams come to nothing, but desperate to be useful, as when she is helping to piece together the manuscript. She’s a rabbit caught in the headlights of Hedda’s manipulations, and she really conveys well the vulnerability of the character. There are also excellent performances from Sue Wallace as the very kindly and supportive Aunt Julle and Janice McKenzie as the put-upon and fearful maid Berte.

Janice McKenzieIt’s an elegant production with great clarity of text – this is Andrew Upton’s adaptation, seen on Broadway in 2006 with Cate Blanchett as Hedda – and a satisfying concentration on the emotional motivations of the characters. Although I’ve seen or read Hedda Gabler four or five times before, I came away feeling that this is the first time that I really understood this play. Superb.

Review – In Praise of Love, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, April 7th 2011

In Praise of LoveI’m really pleased to see Terence Rattigan receiving deserved attention in his centenary year. If there’d not been any Rattigan, there wouldn’t have been any Osborne to rebel against him. I can imagine a late 1950s dramatists’ tug of war competition – Osborne, Wesker, Pinter, Beckett, Delaney pulling hard on one side with Coward and Rattigan on the other, looking for a bit of support from The Mousetrap and Salad Days. The outcome of the struggle was inevitable.

But class will out, and it’s great to see his current reinstatement on our stages. When I was 16, I took myself down to London one evening to see a revival of “Separate Tables”. It had a fantastic cast, lead by John Mills and Jill Bennett; masterclasses in stiff-upper-lipness and emotional devastation respectively. The following year I saw the original production of “Cause Celebre”, with Glynis Johns and Kenneth Griffith. I remember the play being heavily criticised for “not being as good as the plays he wrote in the 1940s.” I felt that was unfair – it was a good story, well acted, lots of suspense; and I can look back now and feel that I was privileged to see an original Rattigan production.

Enough reminiscing. As part of their “Made in Northampton” season the Royal and Derngate now have a new production of “In Praise of Love”, one of Rattigan’s less well known plays originally produced in 1973. To outline the story is to spoil it for you, so I won’t. Suffice to say it involves a long marriage, sickness, secrecy and hidden motives.

The use of a black curtain slowly rising at the beginning of both acts and slowly descending at the end of the acts makes a surprising visual impact. You very slowly begin to take focus on the set (an amazing recreation of a book-lined flat by Naomi Dawson) and the couple living in it; slowly you appreciate the situation in which they find themselves; and at the end, slowly it dawns on you what the future will hold.

Geraldine Alexander At the centre of this play is Lydia, an Estonian refugee whose homeland no longer exists (remember this is 1973). Rootless, she clings on to her love for husband no matter what life (and he) subjects her to. He drives her to anger, to love, to impatience, to tolerance, and much more besides. She loves her son non-judgementally, but like any mother is willing to manipulate him well outside his comfort zone. And she loves their family friend – to what extent, I think that’s for you to decide. Geraldine Alexander plays Lydia with gutsy fragility. In the nicest possible way, she looks like someone who has had to put up with a lot in life, and her slow descent into drunkenness is spot on. At times girlishly sprightly, at times careworn and depressed, she accurately depicts all the aspects of the character. Mrs Chrisparkle and I are friends with a couple of Finnish ladies of a certain age, and Finnish and Estonian traits being pretty similar, I can tell you this is a very realistic interpretation of the highs and lows of a Baltic lady!

Jay Villiers Her husband Sebastian is a self-confessed “shit”, and his selfish cantankerousness is very credibly written and played; useless domestically, demanding socially, begrudging with praise and kindness. We all know the kind of bloke who takes his wife for granted and acts boorishly; some of us even may be him. Jay Villiers shows beyond all doubt that it is not a pretty sight. The character development in the second act is equally well done. It’s a very fine performance.

Sean Power Sean Power as the old family friend turns his hand deftly to supporting all three of the other characters in their hours of need, without ever giving you the sense that he is talking out of place or being disloyal to the others. His character is in a tricky situation and you completely believe in the “only way out” that he can live with.

Gethin Anthony Gethin Anthony as the son Joey is a calming influence on his feisty mother but a source of irritation to his father, with his different political views (quite a nice twist on the norm of the day where Rattigan’s traditional characters would have been old fashioned Tories disgusted by the leftist attitudes of the “younger generation” – here an old Marxist is disappointed by his son being liberal). Gethin Anthony’s younger behaviour revealingly contrasts him from the older characters. Here you see the polite young man who greets the family friend, the optimistic person at the start of a hopefully promising career, and also someone who looks forward to a better political future. He’s also not above a childish stomp upstairs in a huff when things go wrong – mind you, nor’s his father. It’s a very likeable performance, the easiest character in the play to identify with; combining the occasional insolence of youth with the anxiety of being out of one’s depth with the future.

However, despite all this, we do have a slight problem, Houston. The set is great; the acting is great. If you take any sequence of conversation within the play, it’s elegantly written and may well make you laugh, shock you, surprise you, sadden you. There is a clever coup de theatre in the story that turns the world on its head. But somehow, when you put it all together, it just comes across as being a bit underwhelming. Despite tackling important subjects and plumbing the depths of deep emotion, it all feels a bit small. A lot of the first act comes across as very “scene-setting” – Mrs Chrisparkle actually used the word “clunky”. The second act is written much more fluidly and the story progresses without interruption to its climax. But, as the curtain fell, I was expecting something more to happen. Does it end there? I can see why Rattigan chose that moment to close the scene, and the visual expressions of the two characters on stage at the end were very telling of their plight. But I still wanted one more thing to happen. One more twist; one more revelation. Rattigan, you let me down!

On our way home Mrs Chrisparkle said she couldn’t imagine a better production of this play. And if that is half-praise, I think that sums up my thoughts too. If you’re interested in Rattigan, you’ll want to see it out of a sense of completeness. You’ll also get to see some really good acting and a play that’s perfectly suited to its surroundings in the Royal.