The hype of National Theatre’s production of Ibsen’s famous play, Hedda Gabler, is very much deserved.
Newly married Hedda is already bored. Her academic husband has not received the promotion he expected and is, after buying their spacious house, nearly bankrupt. No fancy entertaining and lavish lifestyle like Hedda expected. An old lover is back in town, having written the sequel to a bestseller. When he loses the manuscript on a drunken night, Hedda, embittered by the direction of her life, finds herself suddenly with the power to take control of his life.
Taking Chekhov’s gun really very literally, two revolvers sit in a display cabinet on the wall. The audience can guess what dismal ending this play will have. But they endure it, hopeless and helpless, just as Hedda is seemingly unable to alter her own unhappy situation. Except Hedda’s situation is less unhappiness than it is of boredom.
What makes van Hove’s production so resonant is the playing up of a dissonance between the audience relating to Hedda’s boredom, loneliness, the feeling of having made the wrong choice (all normal human emotions) and her nihilistic, psychopathic streak. Relatable yet totally un-relatable at the same time. By using a close-to-original script this performance felt very dated amongst a contemporary stage-set and props, and the repeated playing of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ was the ironic cherry on top. This was, of course, deliberate. It made the setting incongruous and jarring, floating in an unreal time where two worlds merge: late nineteenth century and the 70’s. Empathy is required to connect the two worlds of relatable and un-relatable, and to realise the subtleties in the supposedly separate world of random illogic that is Hedda’s disturbed mind and of us reasonable folk in the audience. It is the disconnect in Hedda’s vision of a life of wealth and socialising with a life of monotony and un-fulfillment, something that most people can relate to – the disconnect between dream and reality. Perhaps Hedda’s reality is so destructive because her dreams were so creative?
The minimalist white room, modern and sparsely furnished, with Hedda vulnerably dressed in a neglige and dressing gown, barefoot throughout the play, draw attention to her lonely and alienated state. A video intercom system, where the person outside the door can be seen but not the person inside, highlights Hedda all over, and the other characters, with the exception of Judge Brack, are manipulated by her unknowingly. An open fireplace which roars into action centre stage is her destructiveness. As are the flowers that are kicked around and stapled to the walls in a beautiful, hysterical scene. In this tantrum she tries to create something out of her destruction; such is her obsession with Bacchus, a destroyer and a liberator.
When Hedda shoots at the audience she shoots at everyone and no-one. Does her desire to control stretch to killing her audience or is she grateful for the attention? Berte, played by Eva Magyar, has a fascinating role. From the sidelines she simply watches. As Hedda creates chaos in order to prove her agency, Berte too seems to be without agency yet she has been forgotten. There is no play about her, the maid, but such is life, Ibsen seems to say.
Ruth Wilson is spectacular, as is Chukwudi Iwuji. If you want to be swept away in a devastating existential drama of well-cast, middle-class socialites struggling to find meaning, and you’d like to see tomato juice strewn across a pretty silk dress, this performance is definitely worth watching.