Kate Moore speaks to Ivo Van Hove about his production of Hedda Gabler which is now touring the UK.
Kate Moore: Hi Ivo, let’s start off by discussing what drew you to Hedda Gabler. Why this play, and why do it now?
Ivo van Hove: Well there are a few masterpieces in the world of the theatre and I think this is really Ibsen’s masterpiece. But more than that, it’s also a very personal play. It was written when Ibsen was quite old, ten years after A Doll’s House, and you feel that there is a real urgency for him to write this. And it’s very awkward because this character of Hedda is not so sympathetic, actually. She’s not someone that you can empathise with immediately. I believe it’s actually a portrait of himself. He had an urgency to tell a story about somebody who feels totally isolated from relationships, from the world.
I read Hedda Gabler now, more than a hundred years after it was written. We live in the twenty-first century, not in the nineteenth-century, so for me it doesn’t make sense really to make a play a historical play, a museum piece about the past. I feel always as a theatre director an obligation to talk about people, humans, themes that matter today, not things that mattered in the past. With Hedda Gabler, I don’t think that Ibsen really dealt with an important theme but more with a condition of human beings and a condition of a society. So I began by writing a little note, some thoughts written down about the play. I put a title above it: Sign of the Times. And that’s what I feel, that Hedda Gabler today is about giving audiences a sign of our times, of the emotional emptiness that we have to deal with; of not really being able to make a change, even when we want it, even when we have every possibility to do exactly that. Sometimes there is an inhibition in ourselves and we don’t know why.
The last thing that really interested me in the play, and which is the main thing that I discovered during my preparation and research; it’s not so much a play about middle-class society in the nineteenth century, but really a suicide play. I think the suicide, the self-destruction, the ultimate self-destruction is deep inside Hedda long before the play started. So, it’s not because of this marriage with Tesman that she commits this horrible or inescapable deed. It’s really deep inside her, this urge to destroy, and when there is nothing to destroy any more, to destroy oneself.
KM: You said that Hedda is really Ibsen, I don’t know that much about Ibsen, in what way is he Hedda?
I cannot prove that of course but it feels like Hedda is about what really mattered to him. He had written A Doll’s House ten years before he wrote Hedda Gabler. A Doll’s House ends with a woman escaping, so there is hope, there is a future. There is something to desire, there is real change. With Hedda, Ibsen is much older, and he writes, perhaps, in a more realistic way according to himself. That was his point of view at this moment in his life, I think. He accepted that life is what it is, even when you have all the opportunities. Because Hedda has everything. She is the daughter of a General, so there has been wealth. She has luxury. She marries somebody who becomes a professor, so that’s also bringing in money, potentially anyway. So she has a lot of opportunities, a lot of possibilities, but she doesn’t seem to be able to do something with it. And that’s so beautiful in opposition to Thea [Elvsted, Hedda’s school friend], for instance. Thea is like Nora [in A Doll’s House]; she does something, she makes a change. She leaves her husband because she doesn’t love him. Hedda doesn’t. Hedda doesn’t love Tesman. Tesman doesn’t love Hedda. But they never make a decision to cut it off, to really make a change.
You can be very poor but very happy. You can have a lot of money and be totally unhappy. Hedda Gabler is full of nuances, full of details, full of different visions. That’s what makes this an enigmatic play. Why does she do it? You never really know. We always try to figure out, but you’ll never really know. And that’s what makes it so mesmerising to watch.
KM: One of the things that I love most about your production is the setting, the fact that you brought it to a modern, contemporary period, which almost changes how I perceived Hedda. I know a lot of people have talked about her as this kind of feminist icon trapped in a marriage and it just doesn’t feel like that. Can you talk a little bit about that in terms of the adaptation and how you came to that?
IVH: When you read the play very carefully it’s really clear to me that Hedda is not this icon of feminism. Hedda is trapped, but not in this society because there are possibilities. There are escape possibilities and Ibsen introduces Thea in the first act to show what you can do. You can just say, “I go and you go”, as Nora [in A Doll’s House] did. So that’s how the play starts. You see somebody who has this emptiness in her. Who seems to have no fantasy. She is just stuck in her addiction to luxury, to having a so-called ‘good life’ for the outside world. She is trapped in herself. It’s not a marriage that traps her because it’s a marriage of convenience. She knows it and Tesman knows it. It’s not that Tesman has hijacked her. It’s an agreement between the two of them. It’s an agreement to have a life for the outside world, to be so-called happy. Hedda is the prison of herself, of her own incapacity. She is incapable of really changing her life yet she has all the opportunities to do that
KM: Do you think it’s important that Hedda is a woman in this story?
IVH: In Ibsen’s time it was a huge thing. To have written the play about a woman at the end of the nineteenth century is amazing, even today it’s amazing to have such a leading character. Hedda has all these demonic forces, she can be really harsh, she is merciless, she doesn’t have a lot of empathy with everybody, she’s not loveable. She is not an easy victim that you feel empathy for. “Oh the poor woman”, you don’t feel like that. At the same time she’s not one dimensionally harsh. Deep down what the actor playing her has to discover is this vulnerable spot, this fragility that is in her, but which she never, almost never, shows.
KM: How does the design of your play tie in with the themes in the play you most wanted to explore?
IVH: Well, what we wanted to do is to get out of the nineteenth century, so we situated the play in a loft, in a big city. It could be London, it could be Shanghai, wherever. And this loft is kind of empty. There is a couch that Hedda and Tesman clearly didn’t buy themselves because it’s the kind of thing that was a leftover from people who have lived there. Is this loft under construction or is it being destroyed? There are no doors within that loft, so people get in and out from the auditorium and there’s no escape for Hedda. But there’s also no mental escape. Everybody comes in and out, so she can also go in and out, but she doesn’t. She stays in the home. There’s also a window, but that window gives onto nothing. There’s not a nice landscape behind it, just blackness, darkness.
Light and darkness is a very important thing. It’s also in the script. It’s beautiful that she says ‘I don’t want to see the light’. I think that’s almost her first line. She feels like being caught in darkness and there’s only one thing that she really loves and that’s her piano. She is totally connected to this old piano. The fact that Ibsen described that there’s an old piano, like something useless, not sounding very good. She’s hooked to that piano. She’s stuck in something, she’s not able to move on. Clinging on to things that are the past, that are gone and not able to step into the future.
KM: Why do you think Hedda is so destructive to herself?
IVH: In the theatre we have always a tendency to explain everything, to psychologize everything. “This person is doing that because…” But in life, how hard it is to know why you do the thing that you do. Suddenly you can be angry at something. You don’t know. I think you can try to understand Hedda but I don’t think it’s necessary because you see her whole journey. You see it scene by scene by scene and sometimes you think this is a horrible, terrible woman. And sometimes you think, how can this person do this to her? So it’s a great mixture. It’s really human. I think that a lot of authors today should be really very jealous of Ibsen for creating a character so rich and mesmerising. The best actresses have played Hedda and the riddle is still not solved, which is great.
KM: Lighting seems like such a huge part of this production. It’s really architectural I felt. I know you worked with Jan [Versweyveld, Set and Lighting Designer] on that. Can you talk a little bit about that process?
IVH: We have lived together for thirty-six years, so it is a continuous thing. But what we do is we challenge each other. We will always want the best of the best. And Jan has a great sense of light. He started with light. When we started thirty-six years ago, light was his thing. Scenography came later. He uses light not to light something, but like a sculpture. It’s like architecture and that’s what I really like also as a director. I think he is one of the best in the world in this way because there are not a lot of people that light the way that he lights a set and a play.
KM: The other thing that I noticed is the way that characters move within space because it’s this enclosed room. Was that really careful choreographed? I wondered how the movement of all the characters came about.
IVH: That’s not preconceived, but I’m very sensitive to bodies in a space. A scene that I really love for instance is at the end of Act 1 when Hedda and Tesman have discovered that perhaps he will not get the professorship and then he is totally depressed and she is angry. And then they sit together in the couch at the side. It feels like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in this empty castle. I’m sensitive to these kinds of moments; when you look at an image and the image expresses everything. It is full of significance and tension.
I create starting a situation which immediately creates the tension, and then I always see what happens during the course of rehearsal. The blocking is suddenly there during the rehearsal. At the end of rehearsal, at the end of a scene when we have the final version, it’s suddenly there. It was never preconceived.
KM: Hedda has relationships with three distinctive men in a way. The one that interests me the most is Brack because I feel like she’s drawn to him but he’s so dangerous. Do you have any thoughts on why she’s drawn to him?
IVH: Because she feels that he is the same as she is. I think that Hedda is drawn to Brack because, in the beginning anyway, they feel they share something in common; a secret life. With Tesman everything is public, it’s just to show to the public, to society: “we are married, we are happy, we will have a child”. With Brack it’s the dark side of life. It’s the hidden side of life. It’s a secret side of life. And that’s what Hedda is so interested in discovering. With Brack she lives the dream that she has to be part of something that’s totally exclusive between two people. Then Løvborg returns, Hedda’s old lover, the one man perhaps that she really was in love with. And for Løvborg the same, the one woman that he really was in love with. Brack goes on this path of destruction, merciless until the bitter end, until pure domination of Hedda.