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FringeReview UK 2016

Hedda Gabler

National Theatre

Genre: Drama, International, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre


Low Down

A newly-translated  Hedda Gabler premieres at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton. Patrick Marber’s new version is directed by Ivo van Hove, designed and lit by Jan Verswyveld and starring Ruth Wilson. Tom Gibbons sound-designs.


Patrick Marber’s new version of Hedda Gabler premieres at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton directed by Ivo van Hove, designed and lit by Jan Verswyveld and starring Ruth Wilson. Tom Gibbons sound-designs and inserts Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ and poignantly Leonard Cohen’s ‘Alleluia’ to counterpoint desolation. Touching though one wishes he hadn’t.


Verswyveld’s set is almost timelessly bare, almost prison-like with a piano (Wilson, ignored and oblivious preset strumming with panels exposed) and virtually no furniture bar a lamp and deliveries of flowers, just maid Berte. Everything’s plaster-grey. But almost and bare suggest relatively contemporary Nordic: Hedda’s headband the Sixties, the buzz-in with visuals much later. The women’s costumes are almost period, the men’s smart-dateless. No modernity otherwise though you fear this might be a Closer for the Nordic suicide class.


Happily it isn’t and Marber’s textual choices and rhythm are key to its success here – and there’ll be some who not liking this production might miss the fact. Like most adaptors Marber can’t resist tinkering with the great phrases, so ‘cock of the yard’ or ‘walk’, Hedda’s taunt to Brack, becomes ‘your triumph’ detumescing the whole ruthless sexual innuendo Rafe Spall’s Brack and the production have reared up so nastily with tomato juice. Brack’s line ‘people don’t do such things’ is merely snapped to ‘people don’t do that’. We’re not subjected to Brian Friel’s additional, spell-out lines (for the 2012 Old Vic production) notably Tesman’s illusory delight at paternity. And there’s no hip zippiness. If ‘triumph’s the worst, it’s preferable to David Hare’s barbarous opening to his otherwise fine 2015 version of The Seagull which loses sense. Like Hare though, Marber doesn’t stray far from the rhythm of the classic Michael Meyer texts. It’s important: if you lose the rhythm, the inevitable march of tragedy gets lost, and it becomes what Robert Robertson once spoofed as An Eight Minute Ibsen Tragedy.


Wilson’s Hedda when she’s finally roused from her pianistic slumbers walks numbly and talks like an iceberg. The awkward music does underline if it also saccharines this desolation. Six months of a working honeymoon with husband Tesman (Kyle Soller makes him almost attractive) have brought home to her as the beautiful dead general’s daughter whose universal admiration was running out of road (already twenty-six or seven, Ibsen notes), that she’s made the safe and wrong choice. Such choices define her, her acute sense of decayed aristocracy, with a desire to plunge into bohemianism checked fatally by fear of scandal.


Two contrasting women challenge that. Kate Duchene as Tesman‘s rather youthful Aunt Juliana arrives with news of her sister’s impending death and determination to find someone to mollycoddle, care for, love. She almost makes love to Tesman leaning over him, seducing him with a pair of old stitched slippers. She initiates a physicality around this production in stark contrast to Hedda herself (never quite Mrs Tesman). Thus at key stages the desperate Lovborg sends poor Berte sprawling, Thea Elvsted beats Lovborg half to death on learning of their ‘baby’s fate, and Brack’s sadistic violence to Hedda must be seen. In proleptic fashion too, bored Hedda fires at Brack at the back of the auditorium, thus straight over the audience; he half-playfully (this Brack’s breezily sinister) puts the gun to her temple. She moves forward inviting it. Lovborg makes precisely the same gesture to Hedda when she holds the pistol. Both ask plainly for death.


Sinéad Matthews’ Mrs Elvsted ‘little Thea’ as Hedda tries to shrink her arrives shorter but morally bigger than the really shrunken Hedda can ever be. Matthews’ déclassé and worse, sexy Thea mixes her awe, even fear of hair-pulling Hedda with gritty candour and an act Hedda furiously envies. She’s thrown 1890 convention away; with a slam from the other side of The Doll’s House left her decades-older neglectful husband who sees her as governess-with-fringe-benefits, essentially for Lovborg, the dissolute genius whom Hedda once loved, still thinks she loves. Sadly so does he.


Matthews still carries the pioneering charge of a woman who’s left absent husband and worse, stepchildren to pursue the man with whom she’s determined to helpmeet throughout their lives. In this abstraction of naturalism, period shock must be carried by actors against the grain, where the production here works like grey rubber, insulating itself and audience from discharge. The actors break through.


Thea’s reformed Lovborg too, he’s written an acclaimed book and has a manuscript masterpiece in the wings (in truth the careful Thea would commit chunks of it to word-doc). And Thea wants to be friends; Matthews puppies this around beautifully.


Obviously it’s unsupportable. Wilson’s Hedda alone throws first Thea’s then everyone else’s flowers across the floor in a kind of anti-fertility ritual, pulling apart some, staple-gunning others to decorate the plaster walls. Only Brack notes this with a lizard-eyed flicker, the rest daren’t.


Later even Verswyveld’s superb lighting is snuffed as cast come to board and staple-gun the windows with plywood, an awkward no-way-out clunk, with the few furniture sticks piled against it. In contrast to Deborah Warner’s epochal production where Fiona Shaw shoots furniture around, this room’s eviscerated, increasingly a self-designed prison. It’s emphasised by using a stalls door only for entrance and exit.


Chukwudi Iwudi’s ardent then desperate Lovborg invokes a fine nobility, believably a Thea-reformed man, and tensions between Hedda and Thea as the former eggs him on to drink punch and trigger an alcoholic relapse, work through the agitation of Matthews’ character against the stillness and subliminal recognition between the two old would-be lovers. His book’s of the future, just as Thea is an 1890s New Woman. What Lovborg doesn’t see about the future is that the past’s coming straight out of it for him.


Spall’s Brack is also younger even plausible as Hedda’s equal and lover till he starts crossing boundaries with menace. His later acts, closing in with blood-tomato juice spilling, spitting, spewing this over Wilson are striking but even as metaphor take Wilson’s Hedda too far into raging passivity. It takes van Hove’s blood symbolism (present in his 2014 Streetcar) to visceral sado-pathic levels Brack only visits in dreams. No Hedda would endure it; nor should we. This scene at least is male director’s fantasy. Spall’s excellent, but this Brack would be less exercised over reputation. His truth lies bleeding.


Soller’s Tesman might be oblivious to Hedda’s nature, boasting to Juliana his privileged access to her body, but he’s far from unphysical. His youthful energy boils when discovering how he’s overspent on the promise of a professorship, all on Hedda, and later his initial fury over the fate of Lovborg’s manuscript. In time he’d be less and less in awe of Hedda. Here you feel she senses that.


Hedda reminds him how he and Thea were once attracted; you sense this is the success story of the dénouement, the rapt communion of a perfectly-suited couple poring over Lovborg’s ruins and resurrecting him – oblivious to Brack’s sensational torturing.


Berte’s a conundrum of silences and complicity, perhaps the accretion of instinctive servitude so attuned she fetches the manuscript or gun for Hedda before she’s asked. Van Hove’s making a mannerist point of a character wished on him. Eva Magyar’s rendition is the most involved we’re likely to see.


Wilson’s properly banked fire and pack-ice, so much so you wonder if she wants to be here. Her often-violated stillness, her physical accessibility in sheer silk shift contrasts with her clipped and shaded furies, and when alone Medea-like dances of vengeance. First the flowers get it, then the manuscript, a whooping orgy almost an orgasm of joy as her double revenge dances in flames: Lovborg’s and Thea’s baby cast into fire. Like all revenges other than perhaps Medea’s, there’s nothing left for her, as she points out elsewhere. Her determined push of Lovborg to ‘do it beautifully’ as if with a hard gem-like flame, and subsequent disgust at unbeautiful morphologies mark more than light stapled out of the remaining aperture.


That phrase has been famously picked up by Elaine Showalter to prove Hedda’s an 1870s-80s aesthete, just out of date. Certainly Hedda’s on the cusp of past and future, not simply past. To Thea the New Woman in the wings, Hedda looks in horrified recognition at the mirror of her class’s passing, not wholly dissimilar to Miss Julie, another general’s daughter, or the Three Sisters. Hedda though seems uniquely to hark back to privilege thwarted by the bustle of history. Occasionally opaque, van Hove frames his eloquent prison with enough space for Greek tragedy and his uniformly fine cast to project it, however skew. Wilson’s supreme power, refracted through the cataract of this fitfully illuminating production, is to convey the sense that whatever role she might have chosen, Hedda’s grown up dead.


Hedda Gabler will be broadcast by NT Live on 9 March 2017.