To create something so unexpected and arresting from a play as familiar as Hedda Gabler is quite a task.
But, with the help of an extraordinary cast and a new script, Ivo Van Hove’s production, which runs at the National Theatre until March 21, achieves it.
Ruth Wilson’s Hedda is electrifying, bouncing between fierce energy and listlessness. Within the cavernous concrete set with only a functionless French window where she plays distractedly with the blinds, Hedda becomes an animal in a cage, pressured to the point of destruction.
With no door on stage, the cast must enter and exit through the auditorium. Only two characters never do so: Hedda and the maid Berte remain on stage the entire time. Having the cast enter this way emphasises just how trapped Hedda feels; just her and the silent, black-clad maid, alone in an enormous, partially-furnished box.
In this pressure-cooker set, Patrick Marber’s script is light and quick. Kyle Soller’s energetic, American Tesman particularly seems to dance about from moods to ideas to books and back again – all at the expense of his wife. His interest in her is only ever expressed in physical terms; a marriage based “privileged access” to her beauty. His energy and excitement never reaches her.
Eilert Løvborg, played by Chukwudi Iwuji, has a quiet righteousness in his sobriety which is replaced with a feverish zeal after he starts drinking again. The contrast in his character serves to make Hedda seem all the crueller; the chaos she leaves behind even forces personality changes in her friends.
But it’s in her relationship with Judge Brack (Rafe Spall) that her victimhood and fragility appear. Confronted by Brack about how Løvborg got a gun, she becomes an object – held between his legs as he spits blood-red soda down her pale slip of a dress. Her cruelty and passions have already destroyed any pretence at innocence; now Brack can destroy her dignity and autonomy. The chemistry between them, and the sheer malice and manipulation in Spall’s presentation, filled me with such rage that part of me wanted to confront him at the stage door – I had to remind myself that Brack is merely a character.
When discussing his decision to name the play using Hedda’s maiden name Gabler, rather than her married name Tesman, Ibsen said: “Hedda as a personality is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than her husband’s wife”. In this sense, she’s aristocratic, a daughter of privilege and (we presume) affection. But in this very modern staging, her aristocratic heritage is rather lost. Without that clear background to her character, she seems needlessly haughty.
And certain choices, such as scenes scored with Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell’s Blue, seem rather unsubtle. (We get it. Hedda’s feeling blue and owns a piano.) But these touches were easy to ignore – largely because I could barely take my eyes of Wilson as Hedda, regardless of what else was going on. I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that a giraffe in the audience would likely have escaped my notice, so compelling was her performance. She owns the stage, and hers is an unmissable piece of theatre.
‘Hedda Gabler’ runs at the National until 21 March. There are a limited number of tickets still available and the play will be broadcast by NT live on 9 March. Details on The National’s upcoming season can be found on their website.
Featured image: The National.