Hedda Gabler, Old Vic, London
King Lear, Almeida, London
Choir Boy, Royal Court Upstairs, London
Sheridan Smith conveys menace but not fury as a Norwegian anti-heroine, while Jonathan Pryce is on storming form as Lear
It looks like a prism, with one glass plane seen through another. In Ibsen's Hedda Gabler – directed by Anna Mackmin – the morning sun is initially shining in at the windows of the Norwegian villa where the newlyweds are ensconced, post-honeymoon. Paradoxically airy yet claustrophobic, Hedda's drawing room abuts her academic husband George's study, which is a kind of interior conservatory.
In other words, we have a nest of translucent chambers, courtesy of set designer Lez Brotherston. Psychologically, however, this production isn't all that penetrating. Maybe the architecture is, in fact, ironic, for Hedda has a dark heart that is hard to fathom. While fearing any scandal, she is already dangerously bored, dallying with pistols and decadent admirers, saying that she feels possessed when she's capriciously cruel.
In the title role, Sheridan Smith maintains a menacing fixed smile under dark ringlets, her eyes occasionally sneaking sideways glances. This is unnervingly mask-like, bringing to mind Euripides' surreptitiously destructive Dionysus. Indeed, Hedda wills her alcoholic old flame, Eilert, to slip back into bacchic debauchery "with vine leaves in his damp hair" (in Brian Friel's translation). That mask-like expression can seem limited, though. I'm not sure I ever believed Smith's Gabler – though conveying tension – was really seething or desperate deep down.
Mackmin's excessively choreographed moments don't help, with Smith running laps around her marital cage and with Darrell D'Silva's sexually predatory Judge Brack, at the grim conclusion, having to melodramatically smear his blood-stained hands down the glass doors centrestage. There's some peculiarly wooden blocking as well: too much spotlit facing downstage for key speeches, plus obtrusive mood-setting music cues. Adrian Scarborough gets plenty of laughs playing George as an eager-beaver nerd, but the marital relationship feels underdeveloped, platonic, not poignant.
Still, D'Silva is largely enjoying himself, with louche gusto. Fenella Woolgar is excellent, treading a fine tragicomic line as Hedda's dowdy, anxious rival, Thea. Daniel Lapaine emerges as the surprise star of this production, an ardently intense Eilert. Smith is coping commendably too, given that the role of Hedda – known as the "female Hamlet" – is a brave leap for her, professionally. She'll also face formidable competition from Thursday, with Juliet Binoche starring as Strindberg's frustrated femme fatale, Miss Julie – aka Mademoiselle Julie – at the Barbican.
It's a devastating case of fathers and daughters behaving badly in King Lear. Played by Jonathan Pryce on storming form, the aged monarch flies into a wounded rage and casts off his youngest, Cordelia, when she refuses to wax showily lyrical about her filial devotion. Subsequently, having handed power to her older sisters, the patriarch finds himself chastised for unruliness and cruelly rendered homeless.
Michael Attenborough's staging has a beautiful, deceptive simplicity, designed by Tom Scutt. The backdrop is a scarred brick fortress-cum -industrial warehouse, with steel doors slamming shut. Medieval belted jerkins and cloaks – in wine-dark felt and oilskin – are subtly blended with ethnic kurtas and with touches from the Edwardian era, plunging into the Great War.
With bushy beard and bardic eyebrows, Pryce's Lear has an impish gleam in his eye as he invites his children to play the game of Who Adores Me Most? The family dynamics are brilliantly detailed here, manifestly fond and playful. Assuring her father of her love, Zoe Waites's Goneril seems totally genuine, holding and giving his hand a little kiss. Nastier undercurrents are to emerge.
As Cordelia, with a Joan of Arc fringe, Phoebe Fox has a strong teenage sense of right and wrong, combined with a spoilt streak and vitriolic scorn for her close-knit sisters who, it is intimated, may have borne years of incestuous abuse. She is definitely a rising star, and Trevor Fox is also superb as the Fool. A ragged Northumbrian jester, he utters hard truths yet also tenderly hugs Lear, trying to pull him back from the brink of madness on the heath.
Pryce's Lear is electrifyingly naturalistic, changeable as the weather, warm and gentle, shaken and ferociously raging. Pursuing the themes of playing and pretending, Attenborough also has Lear take on the role of fool in various ways. The galled king turns his scorn for his daughters into a spectator sport. Later he enacts his demented fantasy of a trial like a feverishly imaginative little boy, improvising a playlet. Then he begins to recover, via manic but less bitter joking, in his scene with Clive Wood's blinded Gloucester. The downside is that the subplot of Gloucester and his opposed sons is underpowered at points and, on press night at least, the pace was sorely rushed towards the end.
By contrast, Choir Boy – though lasting under two hours – seems interminable. Tarell Alvin McCraney's drama about homophobia and rivalries in an all-black American boys' school is staged by the Court's outgoing artistic director Dominic Cooke. It offers admirable young actors – keep an eye out for Khali Best – and also splendid a cappella singing. However, the dialogue meanders, without narrative momentum. This script needed redrafting.
'Hedda Gabler' (0844 871 7628) to 10 Nov; 'King Lear' (020-7359 4404) to 3 Nov; 'Choir Boy' (020-7565 5000) to 6 Oct
Simon Stephens's new drama, Morning, about chillingly callous schoolgirls, is disturbing fare, but also an exceptional and engrossing piece of experimental theatre, at the Lyric Hammersmith, London (to 22 Sep). Gregory Doran's not-to-be-missed RSC Julius Caesar is set in present-day Africa, and, with a superb ensemble, begins a tour at Aylesbury's Waterside Theatre (19 to 22 Sep), then makes for Bradford, Salford, Norwich and Cardiff.
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