Hedda Gabler is a character that divides opinion. The National Theatre’s tour of Ibsen’s masterpiece, stopping for four nights this week in York, does all it can to underline this simple statement. Directed by Ivo van Hove, this new version of Ibsen’s 100 year old text, translated and revitalised by Patrick Marber, is a piece which is constantly asking the audience to reconsider there opinions of the title character. From the beginning the tone is set impeccably. Hedda is sprawled over her piano, head bowed into it’s keys, back to the audience, whilst Tesman (Abhin Galeya) and Aunt Juliana (Christine Kavanagh) talk and move around her. Boredom, frustration, an air of mischief: all elements the formidable Lizzy Watt’s brings to this astonishingly complicated character from the outset of this production.
From the beginning the tone is set impeccably.
It must be pretty tough to follow in Ruth Wilson’s critically acclaimed footsteps as Hedda, but rest assured, you cannot take your eyes off of Watts as she dances effortlessly through the space and text. Everything about this production is ultimately about Hedda. A conversation can be happening between two other characters centre stage, yet your gaze will be pulled to Watt’s putting her lipstick on, upper stage left. The transitions between scenes sizzle with longing and sensuality, as Watt’s stares out at the audience, downstage centre, head back, arms sprawled and mouth gaping. It is this desire for something more, a more that Hedda herself cannot pinpoint, that sits, brooding, beneath this piece. And so it should be said – Hedda is relatable. Perhaps she shouldn’t be but Hove’s rendition of Hedda Gabler is so jarringly modern I do not see how you could disregard her as fickle, even if this is an element of her character. “I settled for him. I am terrible”, laughs Hedda. A modern predicament, or should I say an age old one. Why do people settles for friends, partners, lifestyles that fall so far from the mark of excitement, or interest? Hedda longs for power in her sedentary life, a longing which is marked with dangerous consequence, and ultimately, self-destruction.
Watt’s is supported well by her fellow cast, and the bumbling Tesman, played by Abhin Galeya, and troubled Thea, performed by Annabel Bates, should be singled out for praise. I particularly enjoyed Abhin’s adhoc eating of his noodles after his big night out, whilst Bate’s worked well to establish Thea as a character who is both powerful in her strive for independence, yet ultimately still vulnerable in her reliance on those who surround her. It should also be stated that Jan Versweyveld’s design is simply beautiful. The set, a contemporary inner city loft, almost bare and recently moved into, really works to underline Hedda’s feeling of entrapment mingled with her longing for beauty and perfect aestheticism. It is hard not be wowed as Watt’s beats multiple bunches of flowers, which have rested in empty paint pots, across the floor, and then staples them to her walls, a gutsy outpouring of boredom and rage. As the large open fire is lit, in the second act, the whole stage floods with orange light, and you can feel Hedda’s rushing delight and content as she watches Lovborg’s manuscript burn. As two doors close on the firepit, and the cast members walk on and drill flats against Hedda’s window, the stage is filled with darkness, leaving us in the dark space Hedda’s own mind has begun to occupy.
Ultimately Hove’s new production of Hedda Gabler speaks with ease to a modern audience. What do you do when you have every privilege, but are completely fatigued with life? How do you survive when you have no idea what you are living for? This is a production bursting with the frustrations of privilege, whilst placing our focus on a fierce and complex female character, unlikable, relatable, and heartbreakingly lonely. This is not one to miss.
Hedda Gabler continues to run at the Grand Opera House in York until February 24th. For more information, please visit http://www.atgtickets.com/venues/grand-opera-house-york/