Writer: Henrik Ibsen
Adapter: Patrick Marber
Director: Ivo van Hove
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
The confines of the corset are no more. Stripped bare of unnecessary frivolities, Ivo van Hove’s reputation for successfully coaxing texts into a modern setting is well known. Relying on subtlety and talent, as opposed to grandeur, has paid off for the National Theatre as Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, re-worked is brought into a new time setting.
The role of Hedda is an immeasurably difficult, yet tantalising role for any performer. Often compared to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, though arguably more complex. Hedda really is quite the bitch. Her very nature is not a heroine, though be damned if you’d ever considered her a damsel. Returning from her honeymoon, oppressed and “naturally” a child expected. Bored, her previous suitors and tight purse stringed budget adding to the lack of expression and control. It is the reintroduction of an old friend which ignites a violently consuming flame.
Lizzy Watts embodies Gabblers isolation perfectly, her incarnation of Gabbler is sharp, uncomfortable in her movements as if the air around her thick. Spindly, but somehow graceful: a spider set in her trapped web. Never leaving the stage unlike other cast members (all but the maid) who are free to leave through the theatre doors, not the wings.
The boundaries of love are often any writers base point. Concepts of true, unrequited and shared loves are utilised all throughout the narrative. For Ibsen, singular love doesn’t really exist. It is passed between players, some for longer spells than others. Instead what Hedda desires is control. The sublime beauty she feels from finally exhibiting control over another, to the crushing realisation of the pain and chaos is manifested. Control, not just over others but herself.
With a supporting cast of men, all of whom perform excellently their various attempts to control Gabler. She is shadowed by her male companions: husband, lover, friend and known by her father’s surname. Subtle in their repeated touching of Hedda, claiming an invisible ownership. Soft, even loving strokes from her husband Tesman who frequently talks about his “access” to Hedda, rubbing her belly awaiting a pregnancy. Abhin Galeya, performing Tesman captures not an antagonistic husband, but a dangerous after-thought of control without realisation.
Designer Jan Verswyveld, in tandem with the cast and van Hove, perfectly represent a modernised text. What seems vast is choking, the more touches added the sparser it seems. Hedda’s obsessive need to close out the light. Blinds emulate shadowed prison bars on the vast blank walls, stapling flowers directly to them, each sickly grey wall begins to look more like the padded cell of the asylum.
With modernisation comes choices, some, such as the minimal set, are triumphs. Though this isn’t without some drawbacks. The humour is too clever sometimes. Marber’s reworked text places humour in key scenes, it feels natural, offering a new interpretation. The realistic nervous laughter and delivery, however, forces a chuckle from the audience, breaking the tension.
A unique story is timeless, it can be modernised, dragged into the past or kept in its original time, all will be successful. Hedda Gabler is such a piece. Its pathos, themes and core desolation are all present in Hove’s production. It will turn heads, most likely cause discussion, but is a triumph for the National Theatre and all involved.
Runs until 21 October 2017 | Image: Contributed