“a thrillingly inventive show, with strong and engaging performances from every cast member”
The programme promises an ‘electric’ performance ‘steeped in queer rage exploring how the most famous female character of all time is trapped within a life chosen for her’. This off-putting hyperbole shouldn’t stop you rushing to see this terrific re-imagining of Ibsen’s famous 1891 masterpiece.
Turn-of-the-century Norway has become present day London in Harriet Madeley’s sassy new play which is a co-production with A Girl Called Stephen Theatre, which has as its mission ‘queer/womxn led theatre for Reading and beyond’. The script is sharp and witty with heaps of semi-poetic dialogue that includes a knowing line about White Company bedlinen and another about school mums with ‘puffa coats and keep cups’. In this production there’s also clever use of a pair of microphones that heighten the audience’s appreciation of key passages of dialogue.
The cast of five is directed by Annie Kershaw. She has put together a thrillingly inventive show, with strong and engaging performances from every cast member. Anna Popplewell fizzes with magnificent frustration as Hedda, stuck in a new marriage with an innocent young academic called George. This may be her first stage role, but she has distinguished film and TV credits including the Chronicles of Narnia for Disney and Love in a Cold Climate for the BBC.
Mark Desebrock’s George (Globe on Tour, Beauty and the Beast at NT and many more) is likeably naïve and a perfect foil to Hedda. Ryan Gerald makes George’s publisher Brack a vividly gangling wide-boy. George’s former male colleague and new rival Eilert Lövborg has become Hedda’s lover Isla in this show. She’s played with energy and conviction by Jessica Temple (Peter Pan, National Theatre and roles at Nottingham and Bristol). Natalie Perera strikes just the right note for Thea, Isla’s slightly goofy and foolish lover and co-worker.
Designer Amy Watts has devised a striking set with a deep well almost like a boxing ring at its centre. The simple design enables some impressively creative lighting design by Murong Li. The sound design by Jamie Lu is similarly smart, with some subtle atmospheric sounds that ramp up the tension just when it is needed.
In the thrilling second half, the light-hearted verbal fisticuffs shift up several gears. To escape her trap, Hedda must ‘do something beautiful’. An impressive denouement is achieved at speed and with the shocking impact of the best classical tragedy.
“The physical reality of the production doesn’t match the stinging quality of the words.”
The publicity copy, and writer Kim Davies’ programme notes, make much of “Smoke” being an adaptation of August Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’. There are similarities. The characters’ names – and, more tenuously, their background. Julie (Meaghan Martin) is the daughter of a successful artist, never seen but the constant references to him serve as a reminder of his power. And there’s John (Oli Higginson); a dogsbody at the artist’s beck and call with an obsequious ambition to achieve the latter’s recognition. We are in a kitchen too, albeit a symbolic one.
Yet “Smoke” impresses as a stand-alone piece in its own right. The shackles that bind it to Strindberg’s original both detract and confuse. The setting and the themes of Davies’ writing – writing which is undeniably sharp – are smudged by expectation and the inevitable but thwarted search for comparison.
Sami Fendall’s design suggests the kitchen with an upturned fridge in a pit of black sand. Polina Kalinina and Júlia Levai’s staging makes much use of the sand, stretching its symbolism to breaking point. It is continually being sifted through the hands. It is the eponymous smoke, it is cigarette ash, it is the blunt edge of a knife that will never cut as deep as words. It is foreplay, and afterplay. It becomes limited by its own variations, and therefore a cliché. But back to the kitchen, which is where we find Julie and John. Always in the kitchen at parties, this party being a BDSM party in New York City. John is introducing Julie to the world of bondage, dominance, submission and sadomasochism. It evolves into a game that is not just cutthroat but involves other parts of the anatomy. Verbally graphic, it delves into the subjects of sexual identity, consent and assault.
The performances are as strong as they get. Higginson has a steely charisma that allows him to give his character the credibility it needs, overcoming his status with confidant dominance. Martin’s Julie is no less fierce – her submissiveness snapping intermittently to outrage. Rajiv Pattani’s staccato lighting cleverly shifts the changes of perspective at crucial moments. The play sets out to challenge the notions of consent and, in the wake of #metoo, is pertinent. Some brave choices have been made but a paradoxical backlash of the changing times that are being celebrated is that the danger is presented in too safe an environment. An intimacy director is credited in the programme but, either because their job was done too well or because they were not really needed, there is little onstage chemistry – dangerous or otherwise – between the two. The physical reality of the production doesn’t match the stinging quality of the words.
Perhaps it is a deliberate avoidance to take sides, but we are never quite sure what the piece is trying to say. Julie’s question “Do you want to fuck me?” goes some way towards epitomising the predicament. She is offended if the answer is ‘yes’ and offended if it is ‘no’. John is damned whatever his answer. As the play progresses the dilemmas darken considerably, yet the confusion remains. Perhaps there are no answers. Perhaps there is still much to be learnt. The BDSM setting seems to be a convenient backdrop to Davies’ drama, just as Strindberg is a starting point. But both seem superfluous. “Smoke” tackles important issues without breaking any real ground, allowing a certain pretentiousness to get in the way. Despite the heated and powerful performances, it shows that sometimes there is smoke without fire.