I have seen Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic before, but the internet has no record of when it was so I can only tell you that it was sometime in the late eighties or early nineties, and that I found it dull and incomprehensible. In my memory the theatrical productions of my childhood were all dull, at least visually, the vogue in those days being for a gloomy, gritty greyness to lend weight to a play and indicate that we were dealing with serious matters.
So it’s no surprise that I thought Hedda was dull: it probably was. And watching it again last night, I also thought it no surprise that I found it incomprehensible, not for its language but for its themes, which are very adult. It’s not just the sex and violence, it’s that the drama comes from the ways adults relate to one another, and none of the characters’ actions or motivations would make any sense at all to a child.
So now that I am a grown-up, and given this light and airy and decorative production, did it work better for me? Yes and no. Yes because it’s a good, if flawed, play, and because Sheridan Smith as Hedda is a compelling presence. No, because the treatment of the piece as a sort of light drawing room comedy never quite works, and what it gains in humour from being directed this way, it loses in gutwrenching human horror, which peeked its face out once or twice but never quite made itself known. We should feel thumped in the chest by Hedda, not lightly tickled. Smith does her game best, but with everyone around her playing it as a farce, she can only go so far. I continue to think she’s a terrific actor and nothing will stop me from going to see her in her next play, but if there’s one thing to avoid in theatre – in any art form – it’s timidity, and this is a timid production, frightened to take the source material and wrestle with it; instead tiptoeing around it, afraid to wake it up.