I really wrestled with seeing Ivo van Hove's production of Ibsen's HEDDA GABLER, his first for the National Theatre. Yes I loved his revival of Miller's A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE with it's bold performances and pressure-cooker atmosphere but I had squirmed through his production of the David Bowie musical LAZARUS.
However word of mouth that this was one to see had me scouring the sold-out seating plans on the National website until I found two returns in the stalls. I was glad I changed my mind because for all his obvious Director Theatre tropes, van Hove delivered a scorching revival.
As with his VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, van Hove has stripped the play down to the bare bones and shone a bright, white searchlight on the characters leaving them mercilessly exposed to our view. Luckily, van Hove has still allowed for Patrick Marber's sardonic, sarcastic humour in his translation to pierce the action but as Ibsen's plot gathers momentum then his trademark high-level tension starts to ratchet up.
As usual the production is designed and lit by van Hove's partner Jan Versweyveld - I wonder if their home matches their theatrical aesthetic? Minimalist spaces and the odd chair or couch... it would be fun if the van Hove home is actually packed with kitsch. Versweyveld gives the production a soulless room with cold whitewashed walls, empty apart from a couch and chair, a table, an overly-designed table lamp, a large piano and incongruous buckets of fresh-cut flowers. Oddly enough it works, suggesting not only the new home that
Hedda is trapped in now she is married to the loving but petulant
academic Tesman but also the emptiness she feels in the relationship.
Six months married and finally back from their honeymoon, it is clear to Hedda that she has miscalculated; the spoilt daughter of a domineering General who panicked at his death and, not getting any younger, agreed to marry Tesman in the belief that he would be successful and keep her in the style she is accustomed to. To her disgust she finds he is already suggesting economies in their lifestyle and that he has been supported while growing up by his Aunt Julie whom Hedda finds a bore. Even their dream home is built on a lie - Hedda had told Tesman she would love to live there when they walked past it as she had run out of things to say!
In denial that she might be pregnant, Hedda turns her attention to manipulating the lives of those around her namely Thea Elvstead and Ejlert Lovborg. Hedda had tormented Thea while growing up but pretends to be a friend after learning that she has left her husband to help Hedda's one-time suitor Ejlert Lovborg to stop drinking and finish his academic masterpiece that could win him a coveted job over Tesman. The only person immune to Hedda's manipulations is the cynical Judge Brack, another longtime friend of hers who can match her deceptions easily.
To Thea's dismay, Lovborg gives in to Hedda's taunts and starts drinking before joining Tesman at Judge Brack's house for a lad's night out. In the early hours Tesman arrives home and tells Hedda that Brack moved his guest to the local brothel and on the way Lovborg drunkenly dropped his manuscript but Tesman found it and gives it to Hedda for safekeeping. Like her father's pistols which are never far from her side, Hedda has been handed a loaded gun but her shot ricochets back on her...
In a constant state of ferocious intensity, Ruth Wilson was magnificent as Hedda; crackling like an overhead train cable in the rain, she roamed the stage like a trapped panther, dripping scorn even when attempting to compliment others - only quiet finally when trapped by Brack in the trap of her own making. Wilson has always been a strong stage actress but this was a particular triumph.
There were strong supporting performances too from Sinead Matthews as Thea Elvstead (nasty frock though), Kate Duchene as Aunt Juliana and Éva Magyar as the ever-watchful maid Berthe. The men proved a bit more uneven: Rafe Spall was a snide, loutish Judge Brack - although he was effective against Wilson a little more shade would have been welcome, Kyle Soller's Tesman was less of a puppy-dog than usual but Chukwudi Iwuji as Lovborg was two-dimensional.
As I said van Hove's direction was watertight but for each good directorial touch - Hedda 'decorating' with handfuls of flowers and a nailgun - there were ones that stuck out as too distracting: the supporting cast took forever to board up a large onstage window before the last act for no particular reason while Brack's pouring and spitting the contents of a can of tomato juice over Hedda as a visual illustration of his final power over her was just heavy-handed. I could also have done without the blasts of Joni Mitchell's 'Blue' between scenes... how 60s.
These clumpy moments apart, van Hove's HEDDA GABLER blew the clutter off the usual Ibsenisms away to deliver a thrilling, highly-strung experience.
HEDDA GABLER will screen in cinemas in the UK, Europe and the US as part of National Theatre Live on 9th March - to find a cinema near you, click on the picture below: