Review: Hedda Gabler, National Theatre

There’s a very surface brilliance to Ivo van Hove’s Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. It’s a crisp production with a funny, modernised script by Patrick Marber. He’s drawn out the wit in individual moments in a way unlike any version I’ve seen or read before. Ruth Wilson is brilliant. Her Hedda is completely unaware of the things she has, so preoccupied is she with the things she cannot make happen. Her only distraction – though this she tonks away at with little commitment – is her (out of tune) piano. And her guns. She’s flippant, dangerous, unpredictable and edged with violence.

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But she feels a bit lost without the context. The modern upgrades let Hedda lose into a world where women have jobs and a cleaner once a week, not a full time maid. There’s no overbearing portrait of her father. Her monotony, in this version, is entirely self-inflicted and a product of her own privileged outlook. It’s about Hedda’s decisions not society’s impositions. Even Tesman, played youthfully by Kyle Soller as a successful American academic, is kinda handsome and fabulously intelligent. He’s not a husband to flee from.

The set, at first look, has an expansive minimalism that radiates with a warm but cutting lighting design – all conceived by Jan Versweyveld. Hedda and Tessman’s city flat is sparse and their lack of money to furnish it is evident but the theatre space doesn’t feel empty. It’s a mash up of things inherited-and-falling-apart, with extravagant expenditure in the form of a statement lamp, video intercom and bouquets and bouquets of flowers wilting in buckets.

Closer inspection reveals a mess of cubby holes, buttons and even post box (why is there a post box in a flat?) in the walls. One throw-everything-at-it cupboard serves as fridge, storage, tidy space. When Berte (Éva Magyar), the maid, introduces visitors (“Judge Brack is here. He says he’d like to pay his respects.”) the intercom screen shows the guest’s face. It’s clear they haven’t actually said anything to introduce them self. And Berte is always onstage but we’re not always sure if she’s “on” – can she hear the conversations, is she culpable in the letter burning, why does she sometimes react from her chair and sometimes appear blank, why does she stick by Hedda’s compulsions.

There’s no door on stage, perhaps to signal Hedda’s entrapment. The actors enter and exit through the first set of audience doors and up the stairs to the stage. So we get strange bits of action happening at the very corners of the large stage. I wonder what the sight lines were like on these episodes from different seats… And the first entrance in this way feels like a latecomer blustering in. Too many of the details in the production just interrupt or jar with the story.

Tom Gibbons’ score is lovely but the piano lines seem to resonate from the instrument onstage, which feels nails-down-the-chalkboard creepy. I love the interludes from Joni Mitchell, though, in which Hedda pauses, lets go and breaks down. But did they really have to use Hallelujah. There’s a single moment of true female solidarity when Hedda and Berte share a cigarette and kick off their heels with calm resignation.

Wilson and Rafe Spall, who plays Brack, are electric together in the first half. Their scenes ache with tension and the relationship Hedda has with Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji) pales disastrously in comparison. Spall gives the Judge brash but swoon-worthy confidence. We don’t need his character to descend into rough, violent treatment of Hedda’ body though. Or a weird staining of her satin slip dress with a can of stage blood coca cola. Some subtlety, please? In fact, it’s unnecessary and uncomfortable, even, in the way it disempowers her. Rather than being about Hedda, it risks the play being about her value to three men who pass her around at their will.

Apart from the anachronisms and odd staging choices, Wilson’s performance remains powerfully in my mind. Her Hedda is always watching, meddling, drastic, uncertain, enticing, desperate to feel powerful. At least that’s something – on many levels – we can find empathy with today.

Hedda Gabler will be broadcast by NT Live on 9 March 2017. It’s at the National Theatre until 21 March 2017. Find out more on the NT website.

Photos: Jan Versweyveld