The Victoria & Albert museum is currently doing a series of free screenings of bygone theatrical productions. These shows were recorded for the National Video Archive of Performance which is a positive treasure trove of amazing shows (Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, Sir Ian McKellen in Aladdin, Daniel Radcliffe in Equus, Andrew Scott in Design for Living!). So a few weeks ago I settled into a wonderfully decorative, impressive and very hot (the V&A staff had been slightly taken aback by the popularity of the screening) auditorium to watch Hedda Gabler.
Hedda Gabler started life at the Almeida Theatre before transferring to the West End. Directed by Richard Eyre it starred Eve Best as Hedda, Benedict Cumberbatch as George Tesman, Iain Glen as Judge Brack and Lisa Dillion as Thea Elvsted. The production went on to win four Olivier Awards including best revival, best director for Eyre and best actress for Eve Best. Benedict was nominated for an Olivier for best supporting actor for his portrayal of George Tesman.
The play is set entirely in the Norwegian home of the Tesmans. Hedda and George have recently returned from a lengthy honeymoon and George is eager to make the house, their “dream house” perfect for Hedda. Hedda however is distant, showing no great interest in George or the house and rudely rebuffing the attentions of George’s kindly Aunt Juju keen to avoid any discussion of how she seems to be “blooming”. Judge Brack, charming, garrulous and thoroughly predatory provides a welcome diversion for Hedda but when the nervy Mrs Elvsted comes calling bringing with her news of Eilert Loevborg (George’s professional rival, previously written off as a hopeless drunk) tragedy soon follows…
It’s an odd experience watching theatre on film. There is no doubt that the experience of being in the theatre and watching the performers, the immediacy and intimacy of it can’t really be adequately captured on film. On film the camera directs you where to look, what to focus on but in the theatre you make that decision for yourself allowing you to see the piece as the director fully intended. On the other hand a film of a stage play allows you to see elements of the performance that you would struggle to see if you weren’t in the front rows. I’ve watched After the Dance from the slips way up in the gods in the Llyttelton where on occasion it was a bit of a struggle to see Benedict’s face clearly (at the 1st interval everyone around me dived for their programmes as such was the chameleonic nature of Benedict’s performance and the sheer distance to the stage that they wanted to assure themselves that the person playing David was actually him) and on a small computer in the NT archives. While there is no doubt that some of the power was lost watching the recording without the benefit of an audience sharing the experience with me there were so many nuances and little moments that added so much to the performances that I couldn’t possibly have seen from the cheap seats. So filmed stage plays definitely do have their strong points. Plus of course they’re a wonderful resource. There are so many plays that I would have loved to see but couldn’t for whatever reason and the NVAP is an extraordinary resource for those who love theatre.
In terms of the play reams of literature has been written on Ibsen’s depiction of women which I won’t add to here. Hedda is a captivating, fascinating creature but even Eve Best at her most majestic cannot make her likeable. Magnetic yes. A character your heart goes out too? Not particularly. By the time of the interval I couldn’t quite decide who I wanted to save more – Hedda or Tesman?
Hedda is generally considered to be the equivalent of “Hamlet” for actresses and you can understand why. A very modern character trapped by her surroundings and even her own body with her unwanted pregnancy weighing heavily on her Eve Best’s Hedda stalks across the opulent but oppressive set like a caged tiger. She’s a multi faceted character and a woman of great contradictions.
Hedda is a thoroughly practical sort having “settled” for George as she decided it was time “to leave the dance floor” and allow him to provide for her and give her the opulent lifestyle she desires and yet for someone so pragmatic she has utterly unrealistic aspirations for him. The audience laughs as heartily as Judge Brack at Hedda’s ludicrous suggestion that George could be Prime Minister. Hedda is both cold (her dealings and manipulations in relation to Mrs Elvsted (who is terrified of her) and Loevborg are painful to observe) and consumed with passion and jealousy (which lead her to an unforgivable act). She wants to be loved deeply and to feel that in return and yet when she had the opportunity she ran. She’s also oddly naively. Hedda is amused by Judge Brack and his desire to be her lover and doesn’t fully grasp his true nature until far, far too late. For all her intelligence Hedda gets caught in a web of her own making. She’s the instrument of her own destruction in every respect. It’s a gift of a role and Eve Best was simply extraordinary in the role. Mean spirited, haughty, cruel, disillusioned with a dark sense of humour Best’s Hedda is a force to be reckoned with. Her Olivier was well deserved.
Iain Glen is superb as Judge Brack. Oozing charm he plays the role with immense relish flitting from lightly teasing Hedda with his less than gentlemanly intentions towards her to out and out threats of sexual servitude at the end. The devil always gets the best lines and Glen attacks his role with gusto.
Benedict Cumberbatch is superb as George Tesman. From my background reading I understand that Benedict’s portrayal of Tesman was something of a departure from the norm – that the role is normally played by a much older actor and the character usually portrayed as a weak and boring man who is vastly inferior to Hedda – a mummy’s boy type character smothered with love by his elderly aunt.
While Tesman is not the best match for the headstrong and wilful Hedda Cumberbatch ensures that his love for her never comes across as weak or pathetic. Tesman is portrayed as a fine, capable scholar (if perhaps not the intellectual Loevborg is – you feel for him at his palpable relief that Loevborg will not competing with him for his position but at the same time find yourself admiring Tesman’s easy and non bitter acceptance that he is not his equal) and he is a kindly gentleman who adores his Aunt Juju and is willing to take in the desperate Mrs Elvsted when she comes calling.
Cumberbatch portrays him as one of life’s gentler souls, utterly unable to see Judge Brack’s brazen intentions towards his wife. Yet despite his oblivious nature he never comes across as pathetic or pitiful. Your heart goes out to him, especially when he eventually finds out out about his child. Tesman’s only crime was to fall in love with Hedda and his punishment is being forced to deal with her cruelty and indifference towards him. While the feminist in me wants Hedda to be able to escape from her loveless marriage in much the same way the brave Mrs Elvsted has I equally wanted someone to save poor George! It was no doubt a very tricky task indeed to ensure that Tesman never came across as the henpecked joke of a husband and Cumberbatch achieves it effortlessly. I liked the faint hint of a more positive future at the end as a stronger more forthright George works with the charming Mrs Elvsted – a well matched couple.
The set, which seemed to be permanently in shadow looked magnificent. Deep mahogany and thick plush drapes – fusty and smothering at the same time. A very pretty gilded cage in which to keep Hedda. Given that the recording was over half a decade old it was a clean very watchable transfer. The picture and sound quality in the large auditorium were excellent. All in all a superb, brilliantly acted production of a very difficult play and a delightful way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Hedda Gabler can be viewed by appointment at the National Video of Archive Performance (which is open Tuesdays to Fridays I believe). Viewing is free.