By Portillo, Michael
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 134, No. 4733
Almeida Theatre, London N1
When Henrik Ibsen was 61, he met Emilie Bardach, aged 18, and fell in love. It was his decision to break off the relationship, but reeling from the affair he wrote Hedda Gabler, creating a demonic anti-heroine. "There's only one thing I have a vocation for: boring myself to death," remarks Hedda. But on her brief journey towards the grave, she relieves the tedium by manipulating the lives and choreographing the deaths of her friends.
It is meant as a compliment to say that Eve Best makes a prize bitch in the title role. Hedda is a nasty sneering snob. You would call her insensitive if it were not so obvious that her tactless remarks are rehearsed. She squashes her well-meaning husband and his ever-fussing aunt like cockroaches. She plays mind games with her nearest and dearest, picking at their most sensitive scabs to humiliate them.
Best is superbly offhand. There is something Sloaney about her disdain. Indeed, Richard Eyre's adaptation, although it keeps all the Norwegian names of the original, is very English, and his actors express themselves with a modern kind of ease. The language works beautifully. With the exception of the play's very last line (which is Ibsen's, not Eyre's), every word seems natural and unforced.
Eyre has also given us a beautiful period-piece production. Gillian Raine as Aunt Juliana appears in lavish and elegant dresses that none the less attract Hedda's contempt. At the rear of the set, a gauze curtain bears the imprint of a panelled wall on which hangs an immense portrait. But we can dimly see through to the dining room beyond. While Hedda engages in the most shocking conversations with her former and prospective lovers, we are excruciatingly aware of her husband's nearness on the other side of the wall. In the play's final unforgettable moments, a splash of blood is projected on to the gauze.
The acting throughout is perfection. There is no weak link. Raine superbly captures every mannerism of a doting maiden aunt, trying by all means to make friends with the hoity-toity Hedda. Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as Hedda's husband, George Tesman, is a remarkable study in weakness and dullness, the qualities that most provoke her scorn.
Lisa Dillon copes well with Thea Elvsted, a silly woman who spends most of the play whining or weeping. She is a lamb for Hedda to slaughter, having committed two crimes. During their shared schooldays, Thea was admired for her golden locks. …