When is a translation not a translation? When it’s playwright Brian Friel’s “version” of “Hedda Gabler.” Although the characters and plot remain the same, the play’s dark tone and mood have undergone a radical shift. The result is that most of the characters, especially Ibsen’s fascinatingly contradictory heroine, have become unusually explicable. Anna Mackmin’s strong cast make the mood swings between pain and laughter very clear, but the disconcerting result is that the evening is robbed of tension and engaging complexity.
The elegantly designed production has engendered local excitement due to the casting of Sheridan Smith as Hedda. Smith, a beloved, big-hearted, perky staple of downmarket TV sitcoms, won an Olivier as Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde” and then another for her mesmerizing turn as a stoical wife in Terence Rattigan’s tragicomedy “Flare Path.” Would she have the chops for Ibsen’s darkly suicidal heroine? The answer is, not quite.
She does, however, make an impressive stab at it, her face taut with a rictus smile for public display. But Friel gives Hedda a speech about her horror of the darkness within her. She is, in other words, the victim of depression. That victim status wins her sympathy for the predicament in which she finds herself — disastrous marriage and the promise/threat of small-town life with no independence — but it weakens the character.
And although Smith gives affecting glimpses of the pain that she dampens down, she’s unable to calibrate and convey the slow-burn terror and near uncontrollable passions that ultimate consume her. Aside from flashes of anger at the maid Bertha (Buffy Davis), there’s little that’s truly scary about this Hedda.
Ibsen dangerously risks losing audience sympathy for Hedda by only slowly revealing her pain. Here, it is too fully stated too soon. The same applies to the overstressing of the defining characteristics of the people that surround and threaten to engulf her. Her new husband Tesman is flagrantly an absurd choice on her part. Adrian Scarborough fills the role with winning detail, but he is rendered as such an unlistening fusspot that it’s all too obvious that he will drive her to distraction and beyond.
Similarly, Darrel D’Silva wins repeated laughs for the swaggering of his immensely flirtatious, wolfish Judge Brack but that too strips away the carefully placed shock of his trajectory. Showing just how dangerous he is from the beginning means his last-minute blackmailing, the move that seals Hedda’s fate, comes as no surprise at all.
The biggest gain is in the role of Thea Elvsted, usually a mimsy, blinkered character. Fenella Woolgar shows her as a woman of notably clear-eyed tenacity. Yet through no fault of hers, the character’s compelling, quietly controlled status casts an unflattering light on Smith’s Hedda. When the latter sneeringly accuses Brack of being bourgeois, the moment rings uncomfortably false because Smith lacks the easy hauteur to bring this off.
Ultimately, Friel has rewritten the play as if by Chekhov, a writer whose works he loves and has previously adapted for his own purposes. The latter is famous for his handling of the knife-edge between comedy and tragedy, a tone that Friel uses here. Mackmin’s interpretation of this rethink is certainly strong-minded, but by the end, with key moments underscored by music cues telling the audience what to think, the cumulative effect feels sadly heavy-handed.