Writer: Henrik Ibsen in a new version by Patrick Marber
Director: Ivo van Hove
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
The National Theatre’s production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler takes a very modern approach to a classic text.
Hedda Gabler (Lizzy Watts) feels that she is living below her expectations. Having sown her wild oats in her youth with the free-spirited writer Lovborg (Richard Pyros) Hedda settles down with the academic Teesman (Abhin Galeya) and promptly starts persuading him to live above their means. The return of her old lover pushes Hedda to new heights of dissatisfaction and a desperate manipulative act leaves her at liable to blackmail from the jaded roué Brack (Adam Best).
In the original version, Hedda was confined by the norms that society, at the time, imposed upon women and was forced to live out her ambitions vicariously by slyly manipulating other people. In Patrick Marber’s contemporary setting Hedda is driven more by her internal neuroses than by the need to push against societal confines. Hedda swans around the stage like minor Royalty showing her contempt for guests by not bothering to dress wearing just her dressing gown and slip and taking for granted her many privileges while coveting things to which she is not entitled. It is an alienating approach and risks making Hedda unsympathetic. Possibly to soften the character we are reminded of Hedda’s mental confusion by her fixating on Joni Mitchell’s Blue which she alone can hear.
Hedda’s obsessions seem trivial compared to the devastating impact her actions have but Lizzy Watts’s performance demonstrates that, for Hedda, nothing is more important. Although Hedda’s physical movements are languid Watts gives her an underlying mania that is quite frightening. Watts emphasises Hedda’s reckless self-destructive behaviour; when trapped by Brack Watts fatalistically seems to revel in her shame.
Director Ivo van Hove sets a dreamlike futuristic atmosphere; it is possible that the events may be playing out in Hedda’s disturbed mind especially the second Act in which the characters do not leave the stage simply stand to the sidestepping forward to speak. Jan Versweyveld’s ultra-modern set is stark and cold. There are scant furnishings and the few items of decoration include a pair of guns proudly displayed. To add to the artificiality of the setting this is a house with a sophisticated security entrance system but in which people still correspond by letters delivered by servants.
The UK is currently being scandalised by reports of women in the entertainment industry and Parliament suffering unwanted sexual advance from men. The scene between Hedda and Brack is, therefore, bang up to date. Rather than rely on Hedda being compelled by the need to avoid her misdeeds being publicised and incurring the censure of society Brack physically restrains and humiliates her. It is an ugly scene and, it might be argued, unnecessary as one might imagine that Hedda would find it easier to justify submitting to someone physically stronger than to accepting she has lost her battle and must conform to one of the accepted roles of women – being seduced against her will.
Ivo van Hove adds a number of innovations some of which are challenging. This is especially the case with the conclusion where Hedda’s desperate actions, rather than draw a stunned response that someone could defy societal norms, are viewed dispassionately by the other characters seated on a sofa as if watching television. It serves to prove that while updating a classic story can add relevance, some things, may also have been lost in the process.
Runs until 4th November 2017 | Image: BrinkhoffMögenburg