Hedda Gabler is one of those plays that has become a staple for every drama student or budding actor. I first came across Ibsen’s masterpiece whilst studying A-Level Drama, and again for English A-Level, and again at university. Each time the text has taken on a fresh meaning, required deeper insight. It is a play I have come to know like the back of my hand, but in this new translation by Patrick Marber and with Belgian director Ivo van Hove at the helm, this production of Hedda Gabler is almost completely unrecognisable. It takes a particular talent to make such a well-known play seem like new writing, but this one subverted every one of my expectations and turned Hedda on its head.
Female power is more present in this production than in any other Hedda Gabler I have seen or could have hoped to see. Berte is omnipresent, never leaving the stage, even if she doesn’t always occupy the same space as the others. All-seeing, all-knowing, the maid keeps the secrets. Thea bends to Hedda’s will but never to a man’s – my old drama teacher once described Hedda Gabler as a sequel to A Doll’s House, and this rings true in Thea’s character. She is unthreatened by men because she has freed herself from their grip, but Hedda remains an intimidating figure in her life. ‘Auntie J’ holds a strange sort of power over Tesman, not quite a mother and yet oddly maternal towards Hedda. These women do not blend into the walls or become ornaments for men to wonder at, but break free from the restrictions of a society that would have them in neat little boxes.
In a sense, Hedda Gabler is way ahead of her time. She may have been perfectly at home on the front lines of the feminist movement in 2016, but, like the tempestuous Katherine or her Ibsenite counterpart Nora, she is stuck in a century that sees her as little more than an man’s accessory. She is the daughter of General Gabler, or the wife of Jorgen Tesman, constantly underestimated for her own quiet power. But make no mistake, Ibsen named this play Hedda Gabler for a reason, and Ruth Wilson is a force to be reckoned with. Her graceful command of such a coveted role invite women everywhere to share in her pain. In truth, she is not a particularly kind or decent woman (some misogynists might go as far as to call her ‘nasty’) – she is manipulative, sarcastic, a bully. Hedda lashes out at the world for taking ownership of her. She is threatened, groped, physically and metaphorically pushed around by men and women who consider her public property. Some of these moments are subtle, others not so, but each one all too familiar to the women in the audience. We all recognise that slightly-too-tight grip of an arm, the touch of a pregnant belly without permission, that tug of hair. Perhaps it was these minute details of her performance that made Ruth Wilson so mesmerising. Perhaps it was the chaotic beauty of watching her completely let go only when she was alone. Whatever it was, I simply couldn’t take my eyes off her. Even at moments when the men occupied the stage and she stood in the corner, silently applying lipstick or brushing her hair, my eyes followed her.
In Kyle Soller we see a very unique interpretation of Tesman. Hedda describes her husband as a boring academic with little interest in the hedonist lifestyle she craves. From his first entrance, bounding onto the stage with youthful energy and joy, he is neither bland nor oblivious but aware and socially intelligent, his American charm immediately winning over his audience. Judge Brack, too, was a far more realistic villain in the hands of Rafe Spall. Rather than immediately appearing the blatant creep to whom no woman would risk giving the time of day, here Brack’s journey from sexy to sinister was disturbingly reminiscent of the sadistic villains of real life, lulling victims into a false sense of security before striking. For most of the play, Brack is Hedda’s friend and (somewhat) confidant. Their flirtation puts us at ease with their relationship and gives the final scene a specific sort of cruelty that shocked even those audience members like myself who know the play like the back of their hand. For me, the most impressive moment in the entire preduction was seeing Brack stand up after covering Hedda in blood-like Tomato juice, leaving her looking like Carrie at the prom, and seeing that his crisp white shirt was completely spotless.
The beauty of Ivo van Hove’s production is in its simplicity. It is a bare stage, but not an empty one, and it seems to grow smaller as Hedda begins to feel more and more trapped. The pastel colours give a taste of the blandness she feels about her life, the various light sources about the room guiding our attention from corner to corner with a dim quality that grows darker as the play does. Joni Mitchell’s Blue played repeatedly gives both nostalgia and monotony, somehow simultaneously. I’ll say again, it takes a particular sort of talent to make such a familiar play seem like new writing, and this production of Hedda Gabler is an absolute masterclass in theatre-making.
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Patrick Marber
Directed by Ivo van Hove
National Theatre (Lyttleton) until 21 March 2017
Tickets Available: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/hedda-gabler/whats-on
On 9 March 2017 Hedda Gabler will be broadcast live to over 680 screens around the UK.
For more information: http://www.ntlive.com
[Thank you to http://www.TheatreBloggers.co.uk for this opportunity!]
[All photos by Jan Versweyveld]