Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham
11th April 2012
“One of the tragedies of women is that their willpower tends to remain undeveloped” claimed Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, and as if to belie this belief, he created the headstrong heroine of his dark 1890 work Hedda Gabler. Now regarded as a classic of the late 19th century realist movement, at its heart stands a young woman whose significance is debatable, but whose influence is nonetheless powerful and ultimately shocking.
It is 36 years since I last saw a live performance of this gritty domestic drama, but all things come to those who wait, the wisdom of which was amply demonstrated by this outstanding presentation by Cheltenham’s newest theatre company. Director Rory O’Sullivan has assembled a pool of exceptionally gifted actors, all of them former pupils of Pate’s Grammar School, and fashioned a hugely absorbing, indeed stately, production which draws the audience in further with every utterance.
Though preserving the spirit of the original, Ibsen’s antiquated text is rendered far more accessible, welcome shafts of humour punctuate its bleak storyline, fostering this taut, well-crafted adaptation which is a masterclass in sharply defined characterisations and first-class diction, never mind the judicious choice of costumes and copious applications of facial hair.
The supremely capable cast was strong and convincing throughout. Assured Naina Nightingale imbued the role of benevolent Aunt Juliana with considerable dignity, whilst Gemma Wheeler and Chris Carter ran the full gamut of emotions as the tormented Thea Elvsted and her dissipated companion Ejlert Lövberg, a recovering alcoholic and perceived rival to Dr. Jörgen Tesman. Monty Kimball-Evans’ studied portrayal of the affable, almost other-worldly, academic was thrilling to behold, and Freddie Pope added tremendous gravitas as the sinister and unprincipled Judge Brack.
Critics have considered Hedda to be the female Hamlet. By my reckoning, however, she is much a reincarnation of Lady Macbeth, stoutly defending her vacillating husband against any threat to his destiny to rule, in this case a promised university professorship. It ranks among the greatest of dramatic roles, and justifiably demands the finest talent for it to soar. All rise for Rosie Breckon, whose tour-de-force performance as the leading lady was simply riveting. Sweeping majestically around the spartan kingdom of her living room, scheming deviously and commanding all attention, The Ice Queen reigned with ruthless resolve, her presence and ambition growing ever more terrifying. Final toasts to Susie Bagnall as dutiful maid Berthe, and to cellist William Percy whose doleful segues between each act merely heightened the doom-laden atmosphere as the grim climax drew inexorably closer.
Given the standards in evidence tonight, this is clearly a troupe that will deservedly make its mark in years to come and become another jewel in Cheltenham’s theatrical crown. I await future productions by The Patesian Players with earnest anticipation.