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FringeReview UK 2017

Hedda Gabler

The National Theatre

Genre: Theatre

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre


Low Down

This National Theatre production of Hedda Gabler is a masterpiece in its own right. It is directed by Ivo Van Hove, who based his vision on Patrick Marber’s version of the play.


The set is simple and stark, and the message portrayed is of a group of cold, empty people furious at the trap life has set for them. Jan Versweyveld designed the lighting and the set and it is perfection. It never interferes with the movement of the plot yet it heightens the mood and the impact of emptiness and anger that permeates the production .

It is amazing to this reviewer that Henrik Ibsen wrote this play in 1890 and yet it is as germane as if it had been created today. Ibsen felt that Hedda reflected the female dilemma. While she is attracted by non-conformity, she lacks the courage to defy convention and carve out a unique and positive life. Instead, she destroys the accomplishments of others. Ibsen says, “The demon in Hedda is that she wants to influence another human being but once that has happened she despises him.”

He goes on to say that the play is about the longing to go against what is expected without the courage to actually do it. And it is this spirit that Ruth Wilson as Hedda encapsulates for us on stage.   She is the product of the society she lives in and, in reality, the milieu Ibsen saw in 1890 bears a very uncomfortable similarity to the one we live in and rally against today. Hedda is so bound by what is expected of her that living is simply not worth the effort. “I wanted to know everything I was forbidden to know,” she says and later: “I’ve no talent for life. There’s nothing.”

This is not a pleasant production to watch. Wilson’s Hedda is not a nice person. She is angry and frustrated and doesn’t want anyone else to have the happiness that has eluded her.   Tesman, in a spot on characterization by Kyle Soller, is the perfect husband for Hedda because he makes no real demands on her. But because Lovberg (Chukwidu Iwuji) embodies the free spirit Hedda wants to become, she both loves and hates him and needs to destroy him. She deliberately burns the only copy of his treasured manuscript. Indeed the plot revolves around this woman who must destroy anything she cannot have. Hedda brandishes her pistols and she blooms. That is when she says, “For once in my life, I have power.”

When Brack (Rafae Spall) threatens her with blackmail, she sees no point in the struggle that is her life and puts a bullet through her head. She is determined to go to her grave as beautifully as she left the world.

This production of Hedda Gabler is a disturbing and uncomfortable play to watch. It forces us to question just what feminism has done to or vision of what it is and what it isn’t to be a woman. Ibsen used Hedda to illustrate the impossible dilemma women face living in a society created by men. And his picture is as disturbing today as it was in 1890 when he wrote this play. Women are blocked from cultivating the resources to push out of the chains that social expectation has locked into their lives. We see the disintegration of a sick and demented woman that is the very symbol of the society that created her.