I'm no Ibsen expert, but this version of his play by Brian Friel contains a raft of rewrites which are at best unneccessary and at worst, seriously bonkers. Friel, who is extremely keen on Chekhov, has tried to turn Ibsen's play into something more like Chekhov's Cherry Orchard by injecting comedy, and it really doesn't work.
In Anna Mackmin's skilled directorial hands, this production at the Old Vic has many strengths and some very good acting. Sheridan Smith may not be obvious casting for Hedda, and she doesn't bring the same dangerous intensity to the role as Eve Best did a few years ago, but she's pretty convincing in her portrayal of Ibsen's heroine as a selfish, capricious, spoiled brat. Adrian Scarborough, as always, is terrific as her husband Tesman, and there are other excellent performances by Darrell D'Silva as the lubricious Judge Brack, Fenella Woolgar as Mrs Elvsted and Daniel Lapaine as Eilert Lovborg, the writer who falls off the wagon and is pushed towards death by Hedda, who lends him a gun.
The first two acts are quite entertaining, and Friel's joky interpolations and additions don't do too much harm, though they often substitute text for what should be subtext. Updating 19th century language is quite tricky; if you go too far towards a colloquial modern idiom while keeping the costume and set in period, there's a risk of it sounding anachronistic and absurd. I feel that Friel goes too far in this direction when he gives Judge Brack a habit of introducing phrases of 'modern' American slang such as 'gee whiz!' In the last two acts, the damage done to Ibsen's play becomes structural. Friel is so determined to build up the minor characters, particularly Mrs Elvsted, that the focus on Hedda gets lost. There's a particularly ruinous mock-Chekhovian interlude in the final act in which Tesman spouts a ridiculous monologue about how to name Hedda's unborn child. Ibsen's finely balanced characterisation of Tesman is smashed into smithereens, and the end of the play is an unconvincing mess with a whiff of melodrama.
A decade or so ago I went to see a play by Friel called Afterlife, about an imaginary meeting between two of Chekhov's characters some time in the 1920s. The play didn't work at all for me because it plucked the characters out of the social and political context in which Chekhov placed them. Much the same criticism can be made of this adaptation. Ibsen's portrayal of Hedda as a woman stifled by the narrow social conventions of 19th century bourgeois life fails to resonate; she comes across as silly and petulant, and deeply unsympathetic.
There's another issue for me, which readers of my blog will find familiar if they have read my reviews of Howard Davies' three productions of Russian classics by Gorky, Bulgakov and Chekhov at the National Theatre. Why should foreign classics be rewritten and 'improved' in a way in which their English equivalents are not? Can't we give Chekhov and Ibsen the benefit of the doubt and think twice before embroidering, rather than just translating, their works? We don't add lots of new notes to a Tchaikovsky symphony, and we don't dab extra paint on a Monet. Adaptations and rewrites are fine by me when they really do add a new perspective to the original works. A good example is my recent review of The Busy Body. But when it comes to the classics, I think a bit more humility should be in order.