After the critical acclaim of his ‘View from the Bridge’, Ivo van Hove has boldly returned to the National’s Lyttelton with a stinging and contemporary production of Hedda Gabler. With a crisp and pacey rewrite by Patrick Marber, one of the performances of the year from Ruth Wilson and a fantastic supporting cast, van Hove has lived up to all expectations.
Written in 1890, Ibsen’s play centres around the newly married boredom of antiheroine Hedda Gabler (Ruth Wilson). Hedda – aristocratic, beautiful, mad – and her affable and earnest husband, Tesman (Kyle Soller), have just returned from a six month honeymoon to the only apartment obsessive aesthete Hedda would live in, despite the crippling financial implications. As Tesman delights in the prospect of a professorship, Hedda bemoans that ‘academics are no fun’, that is she is ‘mortally bored’ to the forceful charming Judge, Brack (Rafe Spall). Interest arrives when rival academic, recovering alcoholic and old flame Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji) returns from the country with his lover Mrs Elvsted (Sinead Matthews). Rejoicing in these new pawns, Hedda wildly and joyfully manipulates from the sitting room of her apartment, the board in her game of life.
The action all takes place in this one bare room – high ceilinged, colourless, sparsely furnished – which Wilson does not leave for the whole 2 hour 40 minute run. In a silk slip and black dressing gown, we’re introduced to Hedda as she slumps face down on the piano, repeating the same monotonous four note tune. This is the most lethargic Hedda is for the whole play, in what is an extraordinarily intense and physical performance; even when not speaking, Wilson’s presence palpably floods the stage.
Wilson was truly magnificent as Hedda, effortlessly conveying all of Hedda’s complexities. In the first-half act she is intensely spirited, fascinating, and compelling. She shows herself to be wholly self-centred and privileged, appalled by the idea of ‘no horse?!’, and delights in her own unhappiness and boredom, proudly declaring that she has ‘no talent for life’, that she is ‘trivial’. A sense of the madness to come is gleaned when she violently hurls bunches of flowers across the stage before stapling them to the wall, a blind crucifixion of something beautiful. Enthralment turns to intense dislike in the second half, however, when Hedda’s gleeful manipulation and obsession with purity – including that of death – has disturbing consequences.
Whilst Wilson is the lynch pin of the production, the rest of the cast is excellent. Kyle Soller is a convincing Tesman, his inability to control Hedda as obvious as the lack of chemistry between them, something he is embarrassingly unaware of as his hands slide over Hedda’s rigid body. Rafe Spall as Brack, on the other hand, teases and toys ceaselessly with Hedda (and her with him), their flirtation oozing danger, most notably when Hedda shoots at Brack: ‘this is how I treat intruders’. Indeed, Spall – especially in the final disgusting, visceral scenes – gives a performance only second to that of Wilson. Sinead Matthews as Mrs Elvested gives a somewhat stilted and unconvincing performance, but Chukwudi Iwuji delivers as Lovborg, even though the chemistry between him and Wilson could have been greater.
Jan Versweyveld’s set and lighting design innovatively brings the play’s heavy symbolism into a contemporary setting. Although ostensibly the bare set is a demonstration of the Tesmans’ ‘genteel poverty’, it is no accident that there are no doors – actors move through exits in the stalls – and that Hedda runs slatted blinds across the large window, shutting off all sense of a world beyond. By the final act, the window is boarded up and the room lit with harsh false light, reflecting Hedda’s increasingly closed mental state, her fragile mind exposed in its glare.
The desire to innovate does not always deliver, however. The somewhat random extracts from Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’, played as Hedda gazes into the distance, felt slightly contrived, unless this was an unsuccessful ironic nod to self-reflection – or rather, Hedda’s lack of it. Pedants will bemoan a lack of consistency in the modernisation of Ibsen’s original – the Tesmans’ have a video camera to show the identity of arriving guests, but Mrs Elvsted doesn’t have a phone to call Lovborg and there aren’t USB backups of the manuscript. Such nit picking is grumpy critics’ game, however, when the rest of the play carries so well. This was undoubtedly the best play at The National in 2016 – anything to rival it in 2017 will have to be very good indeed.