Review: Hedda Gabler by The National Theatre

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Henrik Ibsen’s classic play gets an update in this new adaptation by playwright Patrick Marber. Bringing the play to life is Ivan van Hove (director of the critically acclaimed A View From The Bridge), and presented by the National Theatre.

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Known as one of the great female roles in theatre history, Ruth Wilson stars as the titular Hedda Gabler in this production, daughter of an esteemed general and newly married to young academic Tesman (Kyle Soller). A matrimony born out of fear of being left on the shelf, Hedda regrets it almost immediately, with the middling Tesman offering little hope of digging them out of their newly discovered poverty after purchasing a ridiculously large house, and she swings between neurosis and sociopathy as she seeks to inject an element of excitement in her life once again.

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Van Hove’s adaptation is interesting, to say the least. De-aging Tesman to give him the hope of youth and a plausible future works well, and makes the terrifying prospect of already having failed even worse. At the same time, there are some scenes that perhaps veer a little too explictly rather than nuanced and subtle, particularly in the case of shady family friend Judge Brack (a deliciously sleazy Rafe Spall), who resorts to physical violence on Hedda to cement the point he has a hold on her, and even dripping blood red liquid onto her. Inexplicably, he also chooses to have servant Berte ( Eva Magyar) remain onstage throughout the entire play, a silent observer who passes no judgment whatsoever on the increasingly crazed actions that take place.

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However, the performances from the stellar cast are absolutely phenomenal. Even dwarfed by Jan Versweyveld’s huge, empty room, they managed to hold their own onstage. I found myself simultaneously disgusted by and oddly attracted to Wilson’s Hedda, whose actions both signified a psychopathic madwoman and yet, a deeply unhappy one whose actions might even be seen as a desperate cry for help, more or less unhinged. There is a boldness to her voice that suggests she knows exactly what she’s doing, an agent of chaos and gleefully indulging in it, while remaining completely unpredictable, from her obsession with there being beauty even in a suicide, to her surprise claim of pregnancy.

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Speaking of the set, Versweyveld’s sparse, minimal set brings out the Hedda’s empty and unrewarding existence, a bare white room with nowhere to hide and nothing to do, the whiteness constantly threatening to engulf its inhabitants lives. A glass door at the side allowed for ‘daylight’ to stream in, which played nicely on the white walls, casting shadows both soft and harsh to change the mood as appropriate. The chaos wreaked upon it by Hedda in Act 1 is hypnotic to watch as she vandalizes it, tossing flowers everywhere with no care at all for the state it ends up in. As the play progresses, the set moves further and further away from being an accurate, realist depiction of the events at hand, and a feeling of entrapment sets in, reflecting Hedda’s psychological state. No longer does light pour in from the wide window, but from a tiny door resembling a catflap, the house becoming the equivalent of a prison cell.

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Sineard Matthews’ portrayal of Mrs Elvstead is sweet and innocent, a victim of circumstances from her problematic marriage to her utter devotion to academic Lovborg’s work. It’s easy to root for her and feel happy at her eventual ending, which heavily suggests that she eventually finds her place in the messed up world of Hedda Gabler. Chukwudi Iwuji’s Lovborg is similarly sympathetic; a man trying to get back on his feet ruined by a madwoman he once loved (Hedda, of course), and plays the mad genius well.

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There’s the constant sense of one’s mortality and limitations in this production of Hedda Gabler, made all the more worse by Hedda’s consistent drive to want to influence another’s life. Ennui then, is the greatest enemy in Hedda Gabler, its title character a victim of her own boredom and confidence drawn from her position of privilege. Nothing could possibly be worse than losing one’s agency, be it through poverty or blackmail, and Van Hove brings out these modern first world horrors and more in this mesmerising 21st century take on Ibsen’s classic.

Hedda Gabler plays at the National Theatre till 21 March. Tickets are now sold out.

Photo Credit: Jan Verweyveld

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