Writer: Henrik Ibsen
Director: Ivo van Hove
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Hedda Gabler is one of theatre’s foremost roles for women. The part is so complex and internalised that it is often compared to Hamlet, and for many female actors attempting it remains a mark of their seriousness as a performer. Hedda’s fascination lies in the many interpretations that the role offers but in staging it, like many Scandinavian and Russia plays, directors and designers tend to stick to the late 19th Century, when the play was written. Ivo van Hove, making his debut at The National Theatre, has changed all that for good.
Hedda Gabler returns from a six-month honeymoon with her husband, the academic Tesman, who has purchased the very house Hedda has always wanted. But married life is not what she expects and the bored newlywed feels stifled and oppressed by her new status, which even flirting with her former suitors cannot abate. Then, unexpectedly, an old school friend comes to town revealing a surprising secret which sets Hedda and those around on her a path to destruction.
Ivo Van Hove has made quite a name for himself by stripping back and modernising classic plays, and Hedda Gabler is no different. Set in Jan Versweyveld’s minimal grey apartment – unfurnished and unfinished due to Tesman’s relative poverty until he receives his anticipated promotion – Hedda is trapped in a vast, empty space that mirrors her own emotional despair, and it’s a room she doesn’t (or cannot) leave at any point during the production. It’s a bleak world, devoid of much light and certainly of love, which starkly contrasts previous more cluttered versions of their home which played up Hedda’s suffocation.
What van Hove does so well is to remove the distractions and forces you to concentrate on the characters. Some of the most powerful Shakespeare performances are just the actors centre-stage reading the lines, and van Hove brings that same intensity to his plays. London has never seen Miller’s A View From the Bridge as van Hove showed it to us – an epic and unstoppable tragedy of emotional devastation – and this modern Hedda Gabler gives that same potency to Ibsen’s heroine.
In a year of impressive female performances, Ruth Wilson’s intensely uncompromising Hedda is one of the best; petulant, arrogant and deeply selfish, she’s a woman whom you cannot sympathise with for a moment. Hedda has married a man she doesn’t love only because she decided it was time but while she cannot endure the strictures of matrimony, she actively refuses to break the vows she’s made. Wilson is an utterly compelling lead who at times is truly repellent, actively enjoying the downfall of her friends and the feeling of invincibility it gives her. Yet when she is ultimately outmanoeuvred her suffering is palpable and her demise shocking.
The men around her are given just enough colour of their own to make their various links to Hedda feel realistic, with Ralf Spall, in particular, relishing his predatory role as Judge Brack – a man who feels the lady owes him something and pounces on his opportunity. Kyle Soller’s Tesman is an ambitious young academic whose devotion to Hedda seems genuine, although he admits to marrying to guarantee a promotion. Soller’s natural American accent does disrupt the idea that all the characters are from the same place but you do get used to it.
Chukwudi Iwuji as Hedda’s former flame, Lovborg, has a convincing chemistry with her as well as a passionate zeal for his work that feeds nicely into his later exuberances, and although Sinead Matthew’s Mrs Elvsted was occasionally a little stilted, she evokes considerable sympathy and a warmth that draws her to the possibility of happiness later on.
Some of van Hove’s additions don’t quite work, such as the inclusion of sentimental songs at the end of some scenes to underscore the emotions of the character which is a kind of assistance the actors don’t actually need, and the permanently hovering maid who sees everything is a fine idea but does lead to some awkward exits using the house doors rather than the wings.
Yet this astonishing version of Hedda Gabler is a huge success, and its contemporary setting reinforces the devastation of the original story. Wilson, in particular, produces a memorable and important central performance that certainly assures her place as one of the great modern Heddas. van Hove’s production may divide and surprise but it is a powerful piece of theatre that rounds off a particularly great year for The National Theatre.
Runs until 21 March 2016 | Image: Jan Versweyveld