Hedda Gabler, National Theatre

Hedda Gabler should be happy in the 1890’s world that Ibsen created for her. She has everything a woman wants: a successful new husband, servants in a huge new apartment and possibly a baby on the way. But she’s not happy with her lack of autonomy, and power others have over her and her body now that she is a wife. Railing against the patriarchy, she draws feminist audiences to her side despite her paradoxically strong helplessness. She is a quiet revolutionary, a martyr, a catalyst, and despite fighting against the society in which she lives, she is a product of it. In her being out of place, she fits. 

That’s a large portion of the problem with Ivo van Hove’s Hedda Gabler. He has forced her into a wealthy and minimalist present, and made her so unpleasant that she comes across as quite the nasty piece of work. Whilst her behaviour is understandable in the face of the horrendous misogyny she encounters, empathising with her – and anyone else – is difficult and the characters’ choices are often wholly implausible in present day. Some of van Hove’s choices are so uncomfortable that even though they try to challenge Hedda’s oppression, they imply masculine complicity or at the very least, indifference.

Patrick Marber’s script has been streamlined from Ibsen’s, though there is a scattering of jarring anachronisms. His update is largely believable and the characters’ economic privilege is a dominant theme. He stays close to Ibsen’s script, but too much so for it to be completely believable in the present day. Further divergence would certainly be a more interesting premise.

Ruth Wilson’s work is stunning, though – her performance is up there with Denise Gough’s in People, Places and Things. She successfully grapples with Hedda’s emotional changeability and displays a stunning range of aggression, vulnerability and volatility. Her reactions are totally unpredictable, matched in intensity by Rafe Spall as a totally abhorrent Brack. Chukwudi Iwuji’s Lovborg is also excellent, with an earthiness and emotional life that betrays his American training. Though it doesn’t add anything or detract from the performance, it is great to see a cast from around the world, with their native accents on show – a reflection of the range acting talent in the UK outside the white, British standard.

Van Hove’s expansive minimalism further develops a world where Hedda is out of place, but the sparsely furnished living room is so huge that no one seems to belong there. Though it forces distance between the characters, everyone is isolated and on show – not just Hedda in her ridiculously, barely-there slip of a dress. The aesthetic more closely resembles a modern art gallery than an upscale urban apartment, and the choice reeks of vanity rather than function. Even the plethora of brightly coloured flowers that are slowly crushed under foot (an obvious metaphor for Hedda herself) are more reminiscent of an art installation than a newlywed couple’s home.

Making mostly-silent maid Berte (Eva Magyar) ever present on the edge of the stage is also an evocative choice. Instead of supportive sisterhood, she is silhouetted and watchful, complicit with the men. Hedda’s pistols, mounted in a glass cupboard, are also a continuous threat – even though they are her’s, anyone can access them. They are not exclusively her’s, or a secret. 

By far, the most disturbing choice during Brack’s blackmail scene is the use of what appears to be an innocuous can of Coke, but its contents and their violent employment go beyond powerful, into the territory of offensive. The shock value this abusivemoment creates is entirely excessive, particularly when alluding to a woman’s inability to carry a pregnancy to term.

Though Hedda is a character that defies pinning down, van Hove’s attempts to crucify her on the wall of his exhibit is too much. The performances are certainly worth seeing, but the context they are placed in is an uncomfortable and totally inappropriate one to witness. The play itself does a fine job at advocating for feminism without the gratuitous choices in this production.

Hedda Gabler runs through 21 March.

Press tickets courtesy of Theatre Bloggers.

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