© Photo: Vicky Kington
Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is not an ‘easy’ play. On the surface its central character exhibits anti-social tendencies, but her actions in the latter half of the play are unconscionable. But nothing exists in a vacuum and the reasons for her ‘lack of empathy’ provide illuminating psychological insights. In short, there are many ways to interpret Hedda’s external behaviour, which is why director Ivo van Hove has returned to Hedda Gabler for a third time at the National Theatre, with a new translation by Patrick Marber. Taking on the title role, Ruth Wilson is an actress who is a shoo-in for Hedda’s ‘amoral’ complexity, having played a similar young woman, Alice Morgan in the TV series Luther.
Asides from the patio doors and blinds stage right, plus a chair and sofa, the set of Hedda and her husband’s marital home is sparse, with bare white walls. Just like their marriage, the room is just a shell, without anything of substance at its core. Set and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld makes the ambience a ‘character’ in its own right, reflecting the moods of the other characters and the tone of each scene – subtle, but once spotted, quite ingenious.
There are many echoes within Hedda Gabler to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – a close friend of the couple providing a triangular relationship of sorts, money problems, a woman whose father affects her long after his death and a female friend from the past who wants to help a man of ‘questionable character’.
Sinead Matthew who plays Hedda’s ‘friend’ Mrs Thea Elvstead is the antithesis of Hedda. Mrs Tesman (Hedda) talks a great deal about the importance of bravery: “Courage is the most important quality… Without it one can’t actually live.” However, it is Elvstead who has the true courage to follow her convictions like Nora Helmer, to leave her loveless marriage and stepchildren and live with the man she loves. Hedda lives vicariously through the exploits of the much-maligned Lovberg (Chukwudi Iwuji) and while she admires and longs to follow his ‘bohemian’ nature, she daren’t so as the ‘scandal’ would undermine her ‘esteemed’ status as a general’s daughter.
The other main difference between the women which impinges on all the other characters in the play, is a sense of purpose. Hedda’s husband (Kyle Soller) has one, as does his aunt Juliana (Kate Duchene). The book that Lovberg and Elvstead wrote together brought them so much fulfilment, they considered it their “child”. And Hedda definitely has a problem with people looking at her just as a potential ‘babymaker’. If Hedda can’t be content and fufilled, no one can…
As for Hedda’s ‘reckoning’, which has drawn much commentary and a certain amount of controversy, there’s no denying the final tableau with Hedda and Brack (Rafe Spall) makes for uncomfortable viewing. The transformation of Brack from trusted friend to being in a position of power shows his true nature, much as Hedda’s response to Lovberg’s found manuscript revealed hers… As for her final demise, to be under the power of another is not an option. Much like Lovberg’s end, there is no romantic dignity in her death – something the aesthete in her nature would have hated with every fibre of her being.
© Michael Davis 2016
Hedda Gabler runs at the National Theatre until 21st March 2016.
Hedda Gabler will be broadcast by NT Live on 9 March 2017.