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Sort of a transfer and sort of a whole new thing, white-hot Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s take on Hedda Gabler at London’s National Theatre seems to be a redo of his New York Theater Workshop show from 2004, right down to the blasts of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” and the sadistic use of tomato juice. Obviously, the cast is new, led by an incandescent Ruth Wilson (from Showtime’s The Affair) in the title role, while the other major change is the text: Out goes Christopher Hampton’s translation, and in comes a succinct new adaptation by longtime National playwright Patrick Marber (Closer). The lucky souls who saw the original, highly acclaimed production starring Elizabeth Marvel can debate the pros and cons of this new incarnation, but everyone else can join the chorus of approval for this bold, austere and uncomfortably sensuous reimagining of Henrik Ibsen’s classic drama.
Eschewing the period trappings and bourgie-Victorian diction and postures that historically kit out interpretations of this work, first performed in 1891, this is a 21st-century Hedda through and through. The set is dressed by van Hove’s longtime design partner Jan Versweyveld as a cavernous, bare apartment with unpainted drywall partitions that start to look like giant Rothko paintings over the long haul. Inset into one wall is a large picture window with vertical blinds, which Hedda toys with like a bored cat at one point.
Elsewhere, a video intercom reveals who’s calling at the door, and other glazed holes in the plaster function as a fridge or cupboard, a fire extinguisher’s cubby hole and a display cabinet for those notorious, fateful pistols that once belonged to Hedda’s father. There’s also a handy hole in the floor, flush to the stage like a pit barbeque at the beach, in which to burn manuscripts. The furniture is all downtown junk-shop chic — a shabby sofa in a shade of blush that nearly matches the heroines bias-cut slip; an Arne Jacobsen chair for Berte the maid (Eva Magyar) to sit on patiently throughout, silent witness to Hedda’s shenanigans; and an upright piano, its guts exposed. On this, Hedda plonks the same mournful minimal notes over and over again as the audience files into the auditorium before the house lights dim.
Slinky, blowsy and clearly broken inside, Wilson’s Hedda is a vampy slattern, in bare feet and a bathrobe for most of her day until it’s time to don metallic stilettos to play hostess. Capricious to her core, she’s disingenuous about nearly everything, even and especially to herself — from her feelings about the various men in her life to her opinions on real estate. (The details of how she and husband Tesman randomly ended up in their new home could only sound more contemporary if Ibsen had included a discussion of fixed-rate mortgages).
Van Hove and Wilson posit a Hedda who is part spoiled little rich girl, and part frustrated performance artist. In a fit of pique, she thrashes the flowers that have been lying in florist’s buckets around the room, scattering the stems wide and then stapling them to the walls. She whirls and cavorts to Mitchell’s “Blue” like a contemporary dancer, high on the song’s supply of melancholy. “Hell’s the hippest way to go,” indeed. That said, even the most ardent Joni fan might wonder whether the song needed to be played four times throughout the play, although the repetition does evoke the obsessiveness of emo teens in bedrooms.
So Hedda may be a frustrated artist, but as her withering dismissal of Tesman’s academic research suggests, she has little interest in traditional handicraft. As other critics and scholars have often remarked, she is actually, like her creator himself, something of a dramatist, trying to puppeteer the people around her. Her medium of choice is power and manipulation, all to create the aesthetic perfection she so prizes — the main thing she wants from Lovborg’s suicide is that it should be beautiful. The downfall comes once she finds she can’t compete when she meets an even more powerful and skillful manipulator in Judge Brack (Rafe Spall, ferociously sexy). He’s forever grabbing and groping her, and she responds with vague alarm at first and then abandon and flirtation, as if she’s decided to own the sexual harassment and make it a game.
The charged scenes shared by Wilson and Spall are the night’s big draw, and the electric chemistry powers the show, but there’s combustible energy also in the other pairings. Wilson’s Hedda alternately indulges her whiny, narcissistic American husband Tesman (Kyle Soller) and treats him to withering bursts of sarcasm that he barely notices. She’s insincerely girlish and fake-friendly with Thea Elvsted (Sinead Matthews, who has a marvelously expressive rasp of a voice), whom she both patronizes and envies for her assumed parity with men. With Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji, charismatic), however, she’s at her most vulnerable. Her tremulousness with him and repeated emphasis on how young she was when they first met suggests, very subtly, that he sexually abused her when she was still a girl. Her subsequent actions can therefore be read as revenge.
I don’t know if this subtext came through so clearly in the 2004 production in New York, but in 2016 it feels very palpable and very timely, particularly in a U.K. that’s been rocked so deeply of late by child-abuse scandals, especially ones involving the rich and powerful. In 1891, Hedda Gabler must have felt very clearly like a commentary on modern womanhood, especially as it was evolving in the light of a growing feminist movement. This production, in its singular and smart, sly way, appears to be saying something equally relevant about feminism, victimhood and female identity today.
Venue: National Theatre, London
Cast: Ruth Wilson, Kyle Soller, Kate Duchene, Eva Magyar, Rafe Spall, Chukwudi Iwuji, Sinead Matthews
Playwright: Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Patrick Marber
Director: Ivo van Hove
Set and lighting designer: Jan Versweyveld
Costume designer: An D’Huys
Sound designer: Tom Gibbons
Presented by National Theatre
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