It often feels that Ivo van Hove’s modern-dress production of Patrick Marber’s adapation of Ibsen’s classic has veered away from the original to such a degree that it is a brand new play. But of course this is just a misconception brought about because of this amazing director’s ability to turn a classic (as he also did with the brilliant A View From The Bridge) into something fresh and new. He is aided and abetted by a paired down but accurate new working of the text by the great Patrick Marber and Ruth Wilson, an actress who has made her name synonymous with nuance.
Hedda Gabler at The National is radical and so gripping that even those of us who know the play well wonder what will happen next. Ruth Wilson is extraordinary, but no change there. She was a shining star as Stella In A Streetcar Named Desire and Anna Christie both at The Donmar and continues to ensure that The Affair on Sky Atlantic is a must see. I also remember watching her play Jane Eyre opposite Toby Stephen’s Rochester on television some years ago and thinking this is one special actress.
And now she is Hedda Gabler, a part that she has apparently shied away from playing until now. Ivo van Hove was one of the reasons for her volte-face and it is easy to see why. He is the director of the moment who manages to wiggle his way into the mindset of a playwright and squeeze something extraordinary out of his/her text.
Unlike Sheridan Smith’s more sympathetic Hedda at The Old Vic, Ruth Wilson’s version is very difficult to like. It could be all too easy to categorise her as solely evil, if it weren’t for the fact that this young actress is able to make her so much more. Unencumbered by corsets and the strictures of Victorian society, this modern Hedda’s “imprisonment” is of her own making. Holed up in a stark modern apartment on return from honeymoon to the academic, Tesman (Kyle Soller) she is incapable of getting out and doing her “own thing”. That she doesn’t love her new husband is perfectly clear (her facial expressions and body language attest to this) but this is not the elderly, domineering Tesman we’re used to seeing. Kyle Soller plays him as intense but not without humour and the only demands he seems to make are for them to become parents asap. Over her dead body! Sharing an apartment with him, let alone a bed is obviously anathema to this bored, self-absorbed, at times cruel but ultimately wretched young woman.
Hedda’s raison d’etre is to destruct. Initially it’s the buckets of flowers inhabiting the apartment that feel the brunt of her frustration; the ones that aren’t left strewn across the floor are stapled to the walls. Finally it’s herself, but not until she has cruelly destroyed the beloved manuscript of her old flame, Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji).
It’s telling that there are no doors to Jan Versweyveld’s high tec apartment; the characters, come and go via the auditorium. Except for Berte, the maid (Eva Magyar) and Hedda herself, for they have nowhere to go. There are visitors but they’re not particularly welcome, despite her hatred for being alone. She is complicated this one! Mrs Elvsted (Sinead Matthews) does illicit something approaching admiration. She has bravely left her husband in order to be with the reformed character, Lovborg. If only Hedda had that much courage.
Apart from the buckets of flowers, an old sofa and Hedda’s fathers’ pistols in a glass case, the only major prop on stage is an upright piano at which Hedda is slumped at the start of the play. Barefooted and dressed in a silk, clingy slip, she tinkers on the keys and cuts a solitary figure. Later, the strains of Joni Mitchell’s Blue add to the melancholic atmosphere until, finally the inevitable happens.
The entire cast is strong, although I did have trouble hearing Kate Duchene’s Aunt Juliana at the beginning of the play. But Rafe Spall as Judge Brack is especially fine. The ultimate controlling male, he exerts an unsettling power over Hedda, invading her space, goading her and even covering her with his can of tomato juice.
There are many more superlatives I could use but suffice it to say this Hedda Gabler packs a devastating punch and is a definite must see.