Hedda Gabler review: a clear and vigorous interpretation

Star director Ivo van Hove’s production provides the power, beauty and excitement that Hedda herself can never find

Annabel Bates (Mrs Elvsted) and Lizzy Watts (Hedda) in The National Theatre’s production of Ibsen’s masterpiece Hedda Gabler.

Annabel Bates (Mrs Elvsted) and Lizzy Watts (Hedda) in The National Theatre’s production of Ibsen’s masterpiece Hedda Gabler.

 

★★★★

Hedda wanted none of this. Not the marriage, to an adoring, middling academic (Abhin Galeya). Not the bright, spacious, entirely unaffordable home into which they have moved. And certainly not the tummy-patting insinuation that she may now be pregnant with their child. But what does Hedda want, this psychotically bored, casually cruel, seasoned manipulator? And are her beloved pistols, mounted in a display cabinet, her only means to get it?

In the much sought-after director Ivo van Hove’s production for London’s National Theatre, first staged last year and revived with a new cast to tour, Lizzy Watts’s Hedda suggests a woman in a state of arrested development, slow to create and quick to damage: Behold, Hedda the destroyer. Girlish in voice, seductive in her silk slip, and underhand in manner, she begins the performance hunched over a piano, in a space as vast and white as a museum, bored beyond belief.

That Hedda could do with a change is clear, and the same might be said of van Hove’s approach. He first directed the play in 2004 for the New York Theatre Workshop with his designer Jan Versweyveld, and that work has been repeated with minimal adjustments for both their Amsterdam company Toneelgroep in 2011, and now the National; efficiently accommodating new performers and new translations within structures decided long ago.

It remains a clear and vigorous interpretation, in which Hedda responds to the example of Annabel Bates’s Thea – who has abandoning her own stultifying family for a life of passion and equality with the brilliant, dissipated academic Lovborg (Richard Pryos) – with a scandalised, “Don’t you care what people will say about you?” Even in a patriarchal society, some prisons are self-imposed.

For all his radical starkness and indifference to period, van Hove tends to go with the grain of the text, ensuring that Hedda is never alone and always watched: by her maid, sitting onstage throughout, or Adam Best’s lusty, vulpine Judge Brack, who would like to confine her further.

If there’s a certain mismatch between the production’s style and its performance, that owes something to confinement too. The cast find themselves within the clinical exploratory space of European theatre, where Hedda can be enveloped in the music of Joni Mitchell and Jeff Buckley, and tragedy foreshadowed by the beat of menacing, distant drum. Yet they perform with the declamatory naturalism typical of more conventional stagings of Ibsen - archly served by Patrick Marber’s elegantly seedy version – as though railing in a cage.

That makes van Hove’s more strident physical demands seem outré: Hedda hurling her wedding flowers and stapling them to the walls, say, or the furious over-insistence of Brack spitting tomato juice over her when she is already defeated. Over the subtle violence of Marber’s excellent text, such gestures come off as theatrical close captioning.

Yet the play, in its character detail and precision plotting, is eternally fascinating, an even in the cool approach of the production, it provides the power, beauty and excitement that Hedda herself, sticking to her guns until the end, can never find.

Comes to the Gaiety Theatre for one week only, 6th-10th March 2018.