Western Mail

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Hedda Gabler Sherman Theatre, Cardiff ★★★★★

- Philip Dewey

A SHOT rings out and a member of the audience screams in shock.

The lights brighten and Henrik Ibsen’s anti-heroine Hedda Gabler stands facing out from the stage with her late father’s pistols clutched in her hand.

It’s a striking image that has come to represent a woman attempting to take control of her own life from the bourgeois and stifling patriarcha­l society threatenin­g to eradicate her identity.

The Sherman Theatre’s production of Hedda Gabler, updated by Irish playwright Brian Friel, depicts the fall of the newly married Hedda Tesman (nee Gabler).

Having moved into her new home with husband Professor George Tesman, to the greetings of the doting Aunt Juliana and family housekeepe­r Bertha, Hedda has been left reeling from a dour honeymoon and the prospect of a life of unfulfilme­nt.

But her descent into respectabi­lity is jolted by the return of brilliant scholar and former lover Eilert Loevberg.

A direct threat to George’s academic aspiration­s, Loevberg is on the verge of literary superstard­om having completed the manuscript of his masterpiec­e, with the help of his admirer and collaborat­or Thea Elvsted.

Determined to bring meaning to her life and to gain the power to manipulate those around her, Hedda burns Loevberg’s manuscript in an action which brings disastrous consequenc­es to all concerned.

Director Chelsea Walker’s stunning production of this iconic play adds a stylish and modern sheen which contrasts with the haunting and surreal treatment of Hedda’s descent into madness.

The set design by Rosanna Vize is minimalist but superb in the way it keeps the actors on stage when not performing, sat on chairs with blank expression­s as if they’re pawns to be plucked out at will in Hedda’s games of destructio­n.

The major asset to this production is the stellar performanc­e by Heledd Gwynn as Hedda. Whether it’s setting fire to bouquets, pounding a piano or maniacally burning a manuscript in a real fire pit, her enveloping of the title character is truly mesmerisin­g.

Marc Antolin was also superb as the foppish and hysterical George Tesman, while Jay Saighal’s Loevberg perfectly balances the fragility and cruelness of the role.

The always brilliant Alexandra Riley’s performanc­e as Thea Elvsted is heartbreak­ing at times but her strength and conviction shines through.

Nia Roberts as Aunt Juliana is both affectiona­te and disturbing as her behaviour acts as a catalyst to Hedda’s isolation, while Caroline Berry adds a human touch as the long suffering Bertha.

The other stellar performanc­e of the play sees Richard Mylan portray the lascivious Judge Brack in a comic but calculatin­g fashion which gets to the heart of the hypocritic­al society the play rages against.

Another outstandin­g production from the Sherman, the gold standard in Welsh theatre.

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