Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Opened 29 October, 2001

Braham Murray's second production in Manchester Royal Exchange's 25th anniversary season is the first Hedda Gabler I have seen in which the climactic suicide takes place more or less on stage (albeit half-off to one side of designer Liz Ascroft's huge central gazebo so that many of the audience in the Exchange's round space, myself included, could see the act only partially). This is, though, rather in keeping with Amanda Donohoe's performance in the title role.

Donohoe's distinctive feature as an actor is a calculated crispness of manner and facial expression. One might not quite say of her, as of Metternich, that if kicked in the backside she would not move a muscle in her face until she had decided upon the most effective response, but without ever seeming aridly artificial, virtually every moment seems to be precisely gauged. This meshes well with a character such as Hedda, who is consistently presenting a veneer, whether to keep her true feelings from others or because she has prescribed a particular role and attitude for herself.

Donohoe's discreetly sardonic glaciality works especially well in her first encounter with Hedda's husband's Aunt Julia, in her Luciferic temptations of her former lover Eilert Loevborg and in the superficially casual, euphemistic discussion with Judge Brack about establishing a menage à trois; indeed, if anything, Donohoe and Terence Wilton's Brack give too little weight to the undercurrent in this last scene. The potential weakness of such an approach lies in the sequences in which events refuse to go Hedda's way and she must react spontaneously; however, I was surprised on this viewing to note how few of such moments there are unlike, for instance, in Strindberg's Miss Julie, of which Donohoe gave a fine rendering here in 1995. In this instance, Hedda clings to her ideas of her own character even as they are revealed to be inadequate to circumstances, right up to her "this'll show 'em how it should be done" suicide.

Nor is Simon Robson's George Tesman the ineffectual ivory-tower creature of a husband so often seen; he has a kind of vigorous amiability which simply highlights his blindness to various truths. Elsewhere, a curious strain of capital-R Romanticism keeps peeping through: not only in Thea Elvsted's devotion to the reformed Loevborg and in the tension between that man's Byronic side and his idealisation of his own reformed character, but in Hedda's vision of Eilert and even Aunt Julia's response to her sister's offstage death. The main weakness of Murray's production is that these elements the general Romanticism and Hedda's artificial outward behaviour are never sufficiently counteracted by a sense of the net tightening around her in the final act: we can see it happening quite clearly, but we never feel it that keenly. Nevertheless, it is a substantial production which reminds us that, even when cast somewhat to type, Donohoe is not to be underestimated as a stage actress.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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