Hedda Gabler – Theatre Royal, Nottingham

Writer: Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Patrick Marber

Director: Ivo van Hove

Reviewer: Dave Smith

Barely home from her honeymoon with her new husband George Tesman – a steady but distinctly average academic – and Hedda is already bored to death with a marriage she wasn’t that enthusiastic about in the first place.

When George’s former academic rival and now recovered alcoholic Eilert Løvborg – who may also be a former lover of Hedda – returns from his wasted years with a bestseller to his name in the same field as George, he becomes a genuine contender for the university professorship Tesman and Hedda have been counting on to help meet their dangerously overstretched finances. A drunken lads night out and a lost masterpiece of a script are the impetus for Hedda to try and take control of circumstances, but her efforts lead almost inevitably – and perhaps intentionally – to tragedy.

This stunning and absorbing new version of Henrik Ibsen’s classic drama – adapted by Patrick Marber (Closer) and directed by up-and-coming Belgian Ivo van Hove (View From the Bridge, Network) – enjoyed a sold-out run at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre before heading out on tour with a new cast that includes Lizzy Watts as Hedda, Abhin Galeya as Tesman and Richard Pyros as Løvborg.

It’s fair to say that Hedda Gabler was always a pretty brutal play, but Marber, van Hove and Set Director Jan Versweyveld have stripped it back to its barest of bones to give us an unforgiving portrayal of what one bored, manipulative and amoral mind can achieve when given free reign. Gone are the pretty period costumes and imposing, extravagantly furnished 19th-century residence – all we are left with is Hedda in a white slip trapped in a large white room.

Thoroughly true to the source text, yet also thoroughly modern, Marber’s script ensures it is always accessible, while Versweyveld’s beautiful set is a stark, enclosed prison for Hedda to occupy, with nothing to do but stalk and beat (or, more accurately in this case, staple gun flowers) against the walls. Tom Gibbons’ sound design also brilliantly adds to a sense of impending doom, although the two songs chosen to intersperse scenes (Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah) are not the most subtle of choices. As far as the first goes, we probably got that Hedda was unhappy.

Lizzy Watts takes on one of the most challenging roles in theatre and delivers in spades. On stage for the whole time, she’s an arch, spoiled, charming, bitchy, funny and sexy – but never sympathetic – Hedda, captivating and terrifying those around her in equal measure. It’s a powerful performance that dominates the stage throughout. Also on stage for the whole time is the Tesmans’ maid Berthe (Madlena Nedeva), equally trapped, equally resentful and slowly and silently becoming Hedda’s conspirator.

The rest of the cast is almost inevitably somewhat overshadowed by Watts and the role she’s been given, but Abhin Galeya is likeable as a knowingly naïve Tesman and Adam Best is worryingly convincing as a thoroughly repulsive Brack.

Runs until 10 February 2018 and on tour | Image: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

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