Writer: Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Patrick Marber
Director: Ivo van Hove
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
One can’t help wondering what happened to the young Hedda Gabler to make her the woman she is. She appears unpleasant, manipulative and bullying, entirely in charge of her life. She has captured the heart of the affable Tesman and they are now returned to the life of academia after an extended honeymoon/research trip. She should be happy. And yet, there is something missing; as the National Theatre’s acclaimed production progresses, her grip on her own life and those around her loosens and the balance of power shifts. Can she manoeuvre her way out of the corner into which she has been backed?
As one enters the auditorium, one is faced by a stark, minimalistic monochrome set. This, ostensibly, is the Tesmans’ living room. One can’t help feeling, however, that one is peeping inside Hedda’s head, not her physical space. What we see is a large, largely empty space. Sticks of furniture barely make a dent on the emptiness. And yet, the action often seems to be constrained and small. Already on stage is Hedda – tinkling tunelessly on a piano – and Berte, the Tesmans’ maid. As one’s eye travels around the set, one is struck by the almost complete lack of ornamentation and the light streaming in through a large picture window. Then one notices it: there are no doors. Hedda and Berte are trapped. Berte is ever watchful, Hedda initially in control – for example, changing the quality of the lighting; other characters, even her new husband, enter and exit her life from the auditorium, and even then, only with Hedda’s express permission.
Before the interval, we see Hedda’s apparent thoughtlessness and self-centredness as we meet what must surely be ex-lovers and schoolmates setting them against each other for her amusement. But it’s clear they have something she craves: they are living Technicolor lives. After the interval, her grasp on power fades as events she has set in motion unwind: now other cast members enter and exit without ceremony independent of her; presences at her periphery. Lighting becomes harsh as she spirals down. Eventually, clear that she has lost all power, she makes a decision.
Director Ivo van Hove has created a rich piece supported by Jan Versweyveld’s set and lighting design that invites us into Hedda’s head, and the soundscape of Tom Gibbons – often atonal, sometimes pulsing and throbbing – that reflects Hedda’s moods while altering our perceptions of her almost subliminally.
And at the centre is Lizzy Watts’ towering presence as Hedda. Never off-stage, she remains the centre of attention as she stalks around, initially manipulating others with what seems to be casual cruelty. While one may not be able to understand her internal logic, it is clearly there and her descent after the interval is powerfully done. She could slip into melodramatic evil; instead she becomes increasingly sympathetic as the events unwind: a credit to Watts’ portrayal. Madlena Nedeva brings us Berte, apparently inscrutable, she sees all and comments on nothing, a continuous painful presence for Hedda. Christine Kavanagh as Tesman’s aunt appears to have the interests of Hedda and her husband at heart, as does Adam Best as Brack, a judge whose true colours subsequently appear and actively unravel Hedda’s plans. Best brings a coldness to Brack which is quite chilling and ultimately uncomfortable to watch.
Blissfully unaware of Hedda’s machinations and character is Abhin Galeya’s Tesman. He is determined to see the best in all. And then there are Lovborg (Richard Pryos), ostensibly a rival to Tesman, and Thea (Annabel Bates). Thea was bullied by Hedda at school and cannot forget it; she has nevertheless saved Lovborg from certain alcohol-fuelled death. Is it jealousy that causes Hedda to treat these two so badly? Her actions seem incomprehensible and their reactions reflect that.
An evening of powerful performances, oozing with symbolism that takes us inside the mind of one woman. What could have set her on this road? We’ll never know, but she treads it with an inevitability until the very end.
Runs until 27 January 2018 and on tour | Image: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg