hedda

Hedda Gabler

Wolverhampton Grand

*****

I’ll put my cards on the table before we start. I am not an Ibsen fan. I don’t dispute that he wrote important, landmark plays, classics of 19th century realism, but, to be honest, I see them as sort of bucket list productions, worthy things you really should see and tick off before you die.

So it is quite a surprise to find that this National Theatre production dispenses with period dress and gives us a contemporary, minimalist setting. We have moved from small town Kristiania, as Oslo was called from 1877 to 1925, in 1891, at least that is when the play premiered in Munich, to . . .

Well, it could almost be anytime or indeed any place where a whiff of scandal only needs half a dozen tongues wagging.

The story is quite simple. Hedda Gabler, who still sees herself as that, despite being married to her academic husband George Tesman, is unhappy. It is obvious she does not love Tesman, but married him merely to stop being . . . well, unmarried.

Tesman loves research and books as much, if not more than his wife. Then there is his friend, Judge Brack, who is the sort of friend best avoided. His view, to Hedda at least, is that marriage is best as a triangle, in her case with him as the pointy bit, so that everyone can satisfy their needs and desires. His needs, and desires, as far as Hedda is concerned, not being that difficult to guess, carnal rather than intellectual.

Into this unhappy family comes Mrs Elvsted, Thea, a younger school . . . one hesitates to say friend . . . who it seems was bullied by Hedda in their school days, pulling her heir and once threatening to set it alight.

She brings news that Lovborg has returned, Lovborg being a celebrated writer who left under a cloud – and an alcholic haze – some years ago. He and Thea are now in a relationship, but we discover he and Hedda were once an item and her parting shot was almost that, when she threatened to shoot him.

Brack

Adam Best’s Judge Brack makes his predatory point to Lizzy Watts as Hedda

Lovborg, who appears to have climbed aboard the temperance waggon, arrives full of life and it becomes obvious that he and Hedda's past love affair is something Hedda seems to regret, or at least has stoked flames of jealousy, as she sets about breaking up his relationship with Thea.

Around them we have Berte, the Maid, and Juliana, George’s aunt, who lives nearby. She brought George up after his parents died when he was a child and is now nursing her dying sister, George’s aunt, Rina.

So we end up with a play about relationships, none of which are particularly happy, building to an inevitable dramatic climax.

As a production it can hardly be faulted. The acting is flawless with Lizzy Watts both sexy and cold as the eponymous character. She is a woman who seems to be never satisfied or happy with what she has, always wanting more with a mind that would keep a psychoanalyst happy for years. Abhin Galeya gives us a Tesman who is more like an enthusiastic schoolboy than a lover or husband. Leaping about, his head full of research, not seeing the void he is leaving in his relationship.

Richard Pyros’s Lovborg is in love with the masterpiece he has written aided by Thea. It is an academic tome, as was his current celebrated book, but perhaps non-fiction philosophical works were big in 1890’s Norway.

He is striving for recognition, or academic fulfillment or . . . who knows. Love is more a mental exercise, a game, even a distraction,  than an emotional commitment and his head is so far in he clouds he could have snow on his eyebrows. Adam Best’s Judge Brack, on the other hand, strides along a much lower path, someone with more earthy pursuits. Best turns him into a sexual predator, a sinister figure when alone with Hedda, who finally manages to get control over her, a situation where he sees not so much an opportunity as a certainty of sexual blackmail. And that is a situation Hedda cannot and will not accept at any price. She is a woman who has been seeking control of her life, and others, all of her life, and she is ready to take a somewhat final control. 

Annabel Bates’s Thea is timid as a mouse, afraid of her own shadow, in love with Lovborg, but always fearing the worst. Her feelings at the loss of their “child” – the manuscript Lovborg has lost – is palpable, her enthusiasm at attempting to reconstruct it with Tesman from notes after Lovborg’s death is almost drug like.

Madlena’s Bertha is a silent observer, answering the door and picking up discarded clothes, while Christine Kavanagh is . . . fairly normal, suspecting all along that Hedda is pregnant. Something not quite confirmed.

Patrick Marber’s new version modernises and perhaps simplifies the plot while Ivo van Hove’s direction brings a steady pace to a play that can wallow without a steady hand of encouragement. Using the side doors in the auditorium helps draw the audience in as well as emphasising the enclosed, white box on Jan Versweyveld’s minimalist setting – which works surpisingly well with hidden doors and fireplace.

Sound is also important here with haunting songs between scenes and even a few verses of Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, there is also a distant, hardly discernible heartbeat drumming in the background at times.

I’m still not an Ibsen fan but as far as Hedda Gabler goes, you will have to go a long way to beat this one. It is a production that makes Ibsen accessible to a modern audience. To 27-01-18

Roger Clarke

23-01-18 -

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