As ways of starting 2017 go, an egotistical sociopath standing over a woman in a nightgown spitting tomato juice in her face seems strangely appropriate.
I don’t know about you, but I woke up on New Year’s Day still finding the world as scary and disorienting a place as I did in 2016. The escapism of theatre is more necessary for me at the moment than I can ever remember it being. Even when said theatre is some bleak ass Ibsen.
Hedda Gabler, currently playing at the NT (whose building feels like a safe haven for the Liberal Metropolitan Elite such as myself), is classic Ibsen. Newly married Hedda hates her life, her husband and all of the inconsequential or downright nasty men and women around her. But she’s trapped, her only potential escape being the two pistols that belonged to her father. If ever a play was a metaphor for the times then this is it.
One of the main draws of this production for many people is the fact that it’s directed by Ivo van Hove, Belgian avant garde director du jour, making his NT debut. I loved van Hove’s A View from the Bridge a couple of years ago A LOT (his basically non-existent staging and design removed all distractions from the bleak and brilliant text and superb cast, making the production all the more powerful) but, from a directorial point of view, his Hedda Gabler feels visually overcooked, almost like someone doing a van Hove impression. Scenes of Hedda throwing flowers around and then stapling them to the walls are incredibly heavy handed and the aforementioned addition of Brack spitting tomato juice over Hedda in various ways during their final confrontation serves only to take drama and malice out of that key scene (Rafe Spall’s performance as Brack is far too strong to need any help here).
That said there is a lot about van Hove’s contribution to the production that I do love: for example his use of music, particularly the heartbeat-style incidental music that plays as background in key scenes, is great, as is the lighting and the clever set with no doors (actors enter and exit through the auditorium doors). It’s also a fantastically well paced production that absolutely whizzed by in two and a half hours. The second act in particular is super quick, rushing towards its increasingly inevitable denouement without ever feeling either rushed or inevitable.
For me, the best thing about this production though is Patrick Marber’s version of the text. Whilst admittedly this isn’t a play I know anywhere near well enough to judge this version against any others, on its own merits Marber gives us a funny, sparky, dark and extremely entertaining take on Ibsen. It’s not at all what I expected, mostly because I laughed so much. That’s not to say he makes light of the story of the characters, he just handles them in such a way as to draw out the absurdity and black humour of them and their situation that is already in the text.
The excellent cast also helps to draw this out really effectively. Ruth Wilson is the headline booking in the title role and she is an enjoyably sardonic, relatively sympathetic, Hedda who really excels in the black comedy of Marber’s script. If you like her work in The Affair, you’ll like her work in this. The standout star for me though is Rafe Spall as an exceptionally unpleasant and exceptionally charismatic Judge Brack. This oily, clever, laddish Brack is evidently a nasty piece of work from the first moment he bounds into the auditorium but is so fucking cool (and hot) that you’re willing not to care about that for most of the play. It’s a scene stealing joy of a performance.
Hedda Gabler was a great production to start my 2017 theatregoing with and one I’d definitely recommend, especially if you’re more of an Ivo van Hove devotee than I am. And plenty of people seem to agree with me - tickets are incredibly scarce so your best bet of catching this one is its NT Live outing on 9th March.
Hedda Gabler is in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre until 21st March.