Hedda Gabler – Milton Keynes Theatre

Writer: Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Patrick Marber

Director: Ivo van Hove

Reviewer: Maggie Constable

After a sell-out and critically-acclaimed run at the National Theatre, Hedda Gabler has commenced its tour of the U.K and arrives at Milton Keynes this week. Patrick Marber’s adapted version of this Ibsen classic is directed by Ivo Van Hove. Both are winners of Tony and Olivier awards.

Recently married and just back from an extended honeymoon, Hedda is already fed up with her life with her academic husband, Georges Tesman. Her sense of frustration is complicated further by her possible pregnancy and the arrival of Mrs Elvsted (a former school friend) and Mr Eilert Lovborg. It transpires that Hedda has most certainly had dealings previously with the latter. Feeling hemmed in, Hedda attempts to manipulate and control the people around her but with devastating and tragic effects. Ultimately, she will be controlled by Judge Black.

Lizzy Watts plays the title role and is on stage throughout the whole play. Demanding is the rôle, demanding is the character herself. The emphasis here is on Hedda’s mental health. Other productions have concentrated on her fight against norms in society (as per Ibsen’s writing), some even from a feminist standpoint. Watts and Van Hove depict a woman who can appear to be almost Jekyll and Hyde. And yet it is quite subtle at times. Watts is superb at showing the intense emotions through her very physicality; the jaunty, jerking movements contrasting with the strange monotone voice. Power and control are key but also her very undoing. Her delivery of those acerbic lines is perfect. Patrick Marber’s revisioning of the language most certainly adds to this effect. A masterful, or even mistressful, performance.

Abhin Galeya’s Tesman, husband to Hedda, is utterly convincing. He shows us a man who is often so wound up in his studies and his quest for academic recognition that he is completely oblivious to what is right under his nose until the very end and his quiet, understated acknowledgement of what has actually happened.

Richard Pyros is Eilert Lovborg, rival to Tesman both academically and in love. Pyros truly brings out the very passionate and excitable man who is so readily influenced by Hedda, especially where his alcoholic tendencies are concerned. It is over him that she is able to wield power, manipulating him to the maximum. Pyros portrays his downfall with real empathy for the character.

As Thea Elvsted, Annabel Bates lets us clearly see the desperate woman who is still being bullied by Hedda all those years after their time at school. Madlena Nedeva brings us Berte, the maid, who is ever present and ever keen to please her mistress, despite her initial misgivings. Onstage at all times, she is oft the silent onlooker to events as they unfurl. A nicely understated performance.

Adam Best, in the Judge Brack rôle, is a totally believable man of smarts and charm who shows so well just what he is really about at the end of the play. An unnervingly accurate performance.

Jan Versweyveld’s lighting and modern set design are as much a character in the piece as the actors. The set is bleak and there are no doors. There is a real sense of entrapment, even more so in the second act when the furniture is turned in and the window boarded. The use of lighting is beautiful and simple but very effective, never more so than when people’s shadows appear on the walls, conveying so cleverly the characters’ status and relationship to each other at that point.

Tom Gibbons’ sound adds a menacing touch to the piece, building the tension with piano clinks and various ominously-repeated noises. The repetition of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ constantly reminds us of Hedda’s inner turmoil as the character stands apparently transfixed.

As the lights go down not a sound is heard in the auditorium, the audience seemingly as stunned as the characters on stage. Yet as we leave there is a real buzz – much to discuss and interpretations to share. A challenging and powerful piece.

Runs until 3 March 2018 | Image: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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