Review - Hedda Gabler (National Theatre)

Ruth Wilson takes on one of Henrik Ibsen's most fascinating and polarising characters in Ivo Van Hove's production of Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. Ibsen's play has been modernised in Patrick Marber's new adaptation. In short, it tells the story of Hedda, the daughter of a deceased army general, who hastily married a man she doesn't care for, and now lives beyond her middle class husband's means, unable to escape the boredom of her pedestrian lifestyle.

Ruth Wilson as Hedda Gabler
Photo credit - Jan Versweyveld
What is instantly noticeable about this production is its stark set design, which is almost as unbearable for the audience as it is for Hedda herself. In many aspects this production is reminiscent of Lazarus another recent collaboration between director Ivo Van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld. In both pieces the action takes place in a large, sparsely furnished room which is slowly dishevelled as the piece goes on. Both pieces also feature large symbolic glass windows. And female characters dressed in silky slip dresses.

To judge it on its own terms, this production of Hedda Gabler is subtly imbued with unmistakable Nordic design, despite its sparseness. Regardless of her disdain for the house she is trapped in, its modernism suits Hedda, and situates her bookish husband Tesman as an antiquated outsider who invades her life, trailing piles of dusty books and papers behind him. Hedda fights back, armed with a staple gun and limp floral bouquets, but her attempt to aestheticize only results in a mulch of flower petals and stems, which are trodden into the ground as the first act progresses, and are removed before act 2 begins, leaving only a few petals scattered around.

This production's design makes use of some very blatant symbolism, although for the most part it steers clear of heavy handedness. Along with his blank canvas of a set, Jan Versweyveld's lighting design is subdued yet atmospheric, with his use of shadows and silhouettes being particularly interesting. On one occasion, a large window lets in air and light on one side of the room, while on the opposite wall vertical blinds cast long shadows, creating the appearance of a prison cell. On another occasion the conniving Judge Brack threatens Hedda while his silhouette, with legs spread, looms over her small, cowering frame.

Ruth Wilson brings an undertone of grotesqueness to Hedda, seething and scheming nonstop while Kyle Soller's Tesman flutters in her periphery, poring over books all day. The trouble is, while Tesman is usually played as an older gentleman, mithering about money and work all the time, in this production he's a sprightly, sociable young man, who evokes spontaneity and good nature. Wilson is a fierce presence, and plays Hedda with a fantastic physicality, switching from restless slouch to catlike languor as soon as she's alone with a pliable man. But it's hard to elicit a strong emotional response to any of Hedda's struggles when she's so cruel to all those around her. She treats her mousy old school friend Mrs Elvsted with such contempt, and goes out of her way to seduce her ex-lover Lovberg into resorting back to his old alcoholic habits.

Patrick Marber's new adaptation of Ibsen's text transports the story from the 1890s to the present day, thus removing the historical context which would ordinarily drive Hedda's actions as a woman out of time. Regrettably, as a result of this modernisation the terse relationship between Hedda and the men in her life seems softened and as such her frustrated outburst often come across as brattish rather than rebellious, resulting in a less sympathetic central character.

The only character who really seems to make an impact on Hedda is Judge Brack. As the unnerving judge, Rafe Spall slimes around the stage and attempts to seduce and manipulate Hedda at every opportunity. Unfortunately, the dynamic between Brack and Hedda is taken to the extreme in this production, and his domination of her mind and body via intimidation and humiliation feels gratuitous.

When the lights come up and the actors take their bows there is a feeling of hesitance in the air. Bare feet trample over the odd wilted petal, and a bright scarlet spatter taints the once blanched box of a set. Hedda Gabler has always been a play which polarises its audiences, but on this occasion a sense of shame seems to permeate through the piece, and come to a head at the very end. Hedda's strength is stripped away, her final defiant acts engineered by the men who surround her. Somehow, by transporting her so far away from her original context, Hedda is robbed of the audience's sympathy.

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