In the last couple of years Sheridan Smith has certainly been busy – with recent roles on screen in Accused, The Scapegoat, Mrs Biggs and the film Tower Block as well as frequent appearances on the stage. She now takes on the title role in the Old Vic‘s Hedda Gabler. Ably supported by a great ensemble cast including Adrian Scarborough, Fenella Woolgar and Anne Reid, Smith’s captivating performance as Hedda demonstrates why she’s the actress of the moment. Her Hedda is cruel and vindictive but also unhappy, desperate and trapped – a woman desperately searching for some control in her life. Sheridan brings likeability to a character that could have been totally unsympathetic.
While throughout the play Hedda resorts to scheming and manipulation, this is the only way that she can hope to influence her life and those around her. The great tragedy of Hedda’s story is that in trying to make an impact, and to gain some control over her life, she fails and instead increases her suppression. As she falls to the mercy of the judge her only remaining option to take control of her destiny seems to be in taking her own life.
Hedda is smothered by society’s expectations of her; that her fulfilment in life should come from loving her husband and bearing his children. Her husband seems unaware of her own wishes, as demonstrated by his reaction to her announcement that she is pregnant. Sally Ledger’s interesting programme article explores the contemporary importance of Ibsen’s play in identifying the restrictions imposed by late-nineteenth-century bourgeois society. She points out that although the play was taken up by feminists as defining the unfair expectations of women Ibsen himself believed that the constrictive nature of society was actually a “problem of humanity in general”. Whether as a statement about the position of women of or on society in general, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler certainly poses thought-provoking questions about the restrictive nature of society.
Treasures of Ancient Rome is an excellent new BBC4 series examining the changing styles of Roman art and its uses. Roman art is an understudied area, and presenter Alastair Sooke is seeking to debunk the myth that the Romans’ art was unoriginal and uninspiring and to raise the profile of art of this period. The art included in this broad category is varied, with widespread influences and geographical locations.
Sooke’s documentary groups the art into 3 programmes; how the Romans pioneered warts ‘n’ all realism, the artistic legacy of Rome’s emperors, and art during the fall of the Roman Empire. The realistic style of early Roman art gives us a unique insight into how these Romans looked and how they wanted to be perceived – as wise and experienced, including wrinkles and receding hairlines. It was not until the Emperor Augustus that Roman art sought to portray people as charismatic, youthful and handsome.
The second episode focuses on the patronage of emperors and their use of art as a status symbol and as a means of propaganda. We see the wide geographical spread of Roman art and the variety of locations where it was found; Sooke explores the remains of the pleasure palace of Emperor Claudius (now submerged underwater), the cave where Tiberius held wild parties and the Pantheon in Rome. Next week, we will see the art that flourished throughout the Empire in places such as Libya and Egypt. The series really gives a sense of the scale of the Roman Empire and the extent of its influence on the ancient world.
Throughout the series Sooke also watches modern artists recreate art using Roman techniques, giving us a clear idea of the way that this art was made. It is fascinating to see how these ancient pieces of art were formed from marble, bronze, or even egg yolk and pigment. Both the ancient and modern art provide for a visually dynamic and interesting series.
Sooke’s has an obvious passion for the subject and he is always engaging; he’s a natural communicator. As in his 2010 series Modern Masters he has the ability to make everything interesting through his enthusiasm and intelligent presentation. Sooke’s excellent presentation, and a wide and interesting subject matter, make this series thoroughly engaging.
The second series of the BBC drama Accused has been as successful as the first. It follows those in the dock, taking us back so that we see the unfortunate circumstances that led to their crime. Even though the prologue of Romeo and Juliet tells us that “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life” it doesn’t stop the play gripping its audience, and similarly Jimmy McGovern’s drama draws you. You find yourself rooting for the defendant in the dock as the events surrounding their crime unfold.
The drama is carried by an excellent cast. Sean Bean as a transvestite in an unlikely relationship sustained his episode almost single-handedly, with support from Stephen Graham as his confused lover. Anne Marie Duff and Olivia Coleman both gave outstanding performances as mothers struggling to deal with the impact of local gang culture. Robert Sheehan nuanced performance as troubled teenager Stephen stood out as he depicted a young man struggling with mental health issues and not finding the support he needs. He was supported by Sheridan Smith as a somewhat sinister nurse who becomes Stephen’s step-mother and John Bishop, better known for comedy, who also gave an emotive performance as Stephen’s father. Anna Maxwell Martin was excellent in the final episode as an overworked prison officer who must deal with the fall-out after a prisoner commits suicide.
Accused excels in creating believable dilemmas, where ordinary people face impossible circumstances. Morality is never black and white, and in Stephen’s story not even the facts of the event are clear. We are left in suspense as to whether his suspicions about his step-mother are delusional or founded in reality. Where Accused really succeeds is in continually posing moral questions that challenge the audience; there is no right way to respond in these situations and the characters are trapped by circumstance and the actions of others. It is certainly one of the most gripping and thought-provoking television dramas of recent years.