Rafe Spall, Chukwudi Iwuji, Ruth Wilson and Kyle Soller. Image by Jan Versweyveld
There is no doubt that Ivo van Hove’s National Theatre production of Hedda Gabler will polarise audiences. From the first sight of a set that is vast and enclosed, an interior stripped back to the plaster, there is no doubt that the Lyttleton stage has been set up as a container for bold images. Sometimes accused of prioritising effect over content, van Hove is so much the man of the moment it is a little comical: three productions at the Barbican later this year, already invited back for the next NT season, and with a full page biography in the Hedda Gabler programme, much of which consists of awards received in 2016 alone, including a sort of knighthood from the King of Belgium. But can his conceptual approach also work dramatically, bringing life and meaning to a Ibsen’s iconic, still brutal drama? It soom becomes clear that his Hedda Gabler is a thrilling, confounding and utterly memorable evening – a collision between an exciting, unexpected cast and a director supremely on top of his game.
Ruth Wilson’s Hedda first appears slumped centre stage over her piano, confined within a house and a marriage that are equally terrible mistakes. Action on the huge set takes place in tiny spaces, often on a sofa too small for three people, forcing them into uncomfortable intimacy. Wilson is fabulously unpleasant, pulling faces of incomprehension and disgust whenever her husband opens his mouth, casually dismissing anyone of no use to her, and using her power over Chukwudi Iwuji’s wide, wild-eyed Lovborg to drive him towards suicide, handing him the gun with which to do it. Hedda’s pistols, inherited from her father, are a pair of very undecorative Glocks. If a gun appears on stage it will, as Chekhov famously pointed out, be used by the end. Hedda can hardly keep her hands of her weapons, pulling them at the slightest opportunity. However, she is not the only rotten one. She is entombed in a society based on power and oppression. The maid, ever present stage left, waits to tidy up the never-ending mess left for her and to receive casual abuse.
Hedda’s deep frustration at her lack of agency in her own life, which she partly attributes to herself – “I have no talent for life” – is also clearly created by her social position as a woman. She explains her trajectory as “engagement, marriage, honeymoon, and then whatever hell comes next” in Patrick Marber’s note perfect version, and is easy to understand her mounting horror at a life trapped with her new husband. Kyle Soller’s American accented Tesman is a self-centred child, foot-stampingly petulant when his promotion to a professorship seems thwarted. He is no match at all for the power of Judge Brack, played with magnetic assurance by Rafe Spall. From the moment he steps on stage, Spall’s strutting sarcasm and sexual threat are mesmerising, and his scenes with Wilson are the moments where this production ascends the heights.
Van Hove delivers two stunning visual coups, which will stay long in the memory. Early on Hedda grabs bunches of flowers, stacked in used Polyfilla tubs, and smashes them systematically across the stage. She then festoons the bare room, which Tesman can no longer afford to decorate, by stapling mocking flowers to the walls. Her unexpected use of DIY equipment is echoed, threateningly, at the start of the second half when Tesman and Brack board up the room’s only window, wielding power tools, trapping Hedda for good.
The second coup is in the final confrontation with Hedda, when Brack asserts his advantage and his sexual dominance. Spall does so with the help of a can of Big Tom, punctuating his threats by drizzling thick, red juice over Wilson white silk night dress, blowing it in her face and splashing the stage. The scene is choreographed with horrible precision, drawing gasps from the audience, and enhancing rather than distracting from Ibsen’s cumulative horror.
Hedda Gabler is a triumph. Productions viewing the classics from the perspective of a more physical, visual theatre are not unusual now, but it is only the best directors who can really make the style work to serve the play. Ibsen’s astonishing drama, which seeded ideas of sexual liberation, familial repression, bohemianism and social disfunction which would take another century to play out, is as new, horrifying and compelling as it has ever been.