Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre
Ivo van Hove’s Hedda Gabler is a transfer of sorts, sharing much with versions staged by the Belgian master in Amsterdam and New York but using a new adaptation by Patrick Marber. It also marks his National Theatre debut, following on from the success of his A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic and, more recently, Lazarus. There are elements of both in van Hove’s Hedda; like the former he has largely stripped the text of its social context to elevate it into the realm of the existential, while Jan Versweyveld’s stark set is reminiscent of what the designer produced for the Bowie musical.
Back from her honeymoon and already bored, the play sees its titular character (Ruth Wilson) embark on a series of destructive acts as she tries to break out of a jail seemingly of her own construction. Arguably Ibsen’s most famous creation, Hedda is complicated in the way real people are complicated. Unlike a character whose decisions can be explained away thematically or rationally, the reasons behind her actions feel just out of reach, like looking at the unknowable mind of another person.
Wilson veers between enigmatic and angry, glaring and snarling at the people that have become her prison wardens. She isn’t helped, however, by a direction that favours the visual over the emotional. As for the rest of the ensemble, Rafe Spall’s Brack threatens with every sleazy smile (even if he doesn’t always convince in the more brutish scenes), while Kyle Soller enjoys a few petulant outbursts as the struggling academic Tesman.
There are sporadic hints of something special: the way the central fire lights the space in the second act is sumptuous; the repeated use of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, though a bit on the nose, is a suitably haunting choice of accompaniment; and, most surprisingly, it has a great sense of humour. Yet excluding the final ten minutes, where things take an aggressive and lurid turn, the production is curiously lacking in intensity. Part of that stems from Marber’s script, which lands its blackly comic moments better than it does its dramatic ones. Then there is the cavernous, whitewashed apartment; the design may make overt Hedda’s empty existence, but in doing so it saps the space of much of its energy.
The nastiness van Hove and Marber have drawn out of Ibsen’s classic is often delicious. Yet it’s a venomous creation that disappointingly lacks the theatrical wallop the director managed in A View from the Bridge.
Hedda Gabler is at the National Theatre from 12th December 2016 until 21st March 2017, for further information or to book a visit here.