One of the best Christmas presents I got last year (albeit one I awarded to myself) was a subscription to the National Theatre At Home platform. I’ve seen well in excess of twenty pieces of their featured content in the last year covering a range of genres from an eclectic set of writers, directors, actors and creatives; I call that pretty good value. Every time I seem to get near to ticking off everything they have, some new productions get thrown into the mix as has just happened once again. The latest batch includes a rerun of the ever popular War Horse, Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, and the highly rated East Is East. However, I was most intrigued by Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler – another of those classic plays that I had read but never actually seen.
The production comes from 2016 helmed by then flavour of the moment, Ivo van Hove – that flavour being distinctly Marmite. I’ve had variable experiences with this particular director; I loved what he did with A View From The Bridge but pretty much hated All About Eve (the first is already on NT At Home and the second is scheduled to be there in the near future) so it was with some misgivings that I approached this production. Actually, for van Hove it was remarkably restrained and proved to be a satisfying account in this “version” by Patrick Marber. There’s been an update so that the restrained and restraining corseted costume of the main character becomes a silk slip and dressing gown and the action takes place in a plain even bleak setting which demonstrates Scandinavian influences but could just as well be New England (Tesman has an American accent). The walls are mostly bare save the prominently displayed fatal pistols and the furniture is both minimal and minimalist. There’s a huge window stage right with light at first filtered by vertical blinds but latterly some of the cast board it up as Hedda feels increasingly trapped by her surroundings; do we really need this to make the point? From then on heavy shadows dominate. Jan Versweyveld’s lighting design is one of the real strengths of the production and strongly articulates mood before even a word is uttered.
The central stage is dominated by a piano which stands there with its workings exposed – another typically van Hove visual metaphor. As the play opens and other characters talk about her, Ruth Wilson’s Hedda is seen slumped across the instrument languidly picking out a tune which becomes a repetitive and insistent motif under the rest of the action; this is slightly annoying but is almost certainly meant to be so. Wilson is a magnificent lead playing the part with a debilitating ennui which gradually morphs into a kind of insanity as she tries and increasingly fails to control her own destiny; it’s no wonder the part is generally considered to be the female equivalent of Hamlet. Intense repression and wild abandon are both in evidence; the first as she recounts with dead eye solemnity her “progress” into her marriage and the other as she manically strews her homecoming flowers everywhere and staples the dying stems to the walls – see what I mean about the director’s visual metaphors?
Wilson receives strong support from the rest of the cast particularly Rafe Spall whose odiously repellent Judge Brack is horribly believable. The duologues between him and Hedda are ripe with sexual tension mingled with barely supressed violence though I’m afraid I found him dousing her in some blood like tomato juice laughable at a point when a dramatic crescendo should have been reached. That nonsense aside they make for a compelling if distressing pairing. Tesman is usually played as a prematurely aging dry stick but has been reinvented here in Kyle Soller’s nuanced performance as a much younger and rather more insecure academic. Chukwudi Iwuji’s Lovborg has something of the hopeless romantic about him and is well paralleled by Sinead Matthews as the woebegone Mrs Elvsted. There’s a maid (Eva Magyar) on stage throughout for no apparent reason other than to pass the other actors props and go in for some intense accusative staring.
Marber’s script is lean and pretty muscular and gets everything done in just over two hours which is probably as much of the Scandinavian noir vibe that anyone can take. And on this occasion van Hove is reasonably restrained and lets the story tell itself. Whether it’s the masterpiece it is always touted as, I’m not sure, but this version certainly contains a spell-binding and compelling central performance which shouldn’t be missed. Why don’t you do like me and treat yourself for Christmas? The way things are developing on the virus front you may find it’s a good investment for the long dark nights (and days) ahead.