REVIEW: Hedda Gabler, National Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Book tickets for Hedda Gabler
Ruth Wilson and Rafe Spall in Hedda Gabler.

Hedda Gabler
The National Theatre
13 December 2016
4 Stars
Book Tickets

Willy Russell’s Rita, even once educated, would probably sum Hedda Gabler up as, “a right cow”. She is a hugely unlikeable character, slippery, a bit of a shape shifter emotionally, revelling in both her boredom and in her delight at manipulating the lives of others. Like his masterly production of A View From The Bridge, director Ivo Van Hove shines a forensic light on a classic text, and, through Patrick Marber’s stripped back text, reveals character traits and aspects of the play that have been largely undiscovered.

Book now for Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre
Sinead Matthews and Chukwudi Iwuji in Hedda Gabler

The set is the clean, pure, cold and unemotional trap that Hedda has set for herself.  A house that she claimed was her dream home, that she had to live in or nowhere else, (it transpired she was joking), is now her mausoleum, and when she frantically throws flowers around the set she is scattering them on her tomb. There are no stage exits, the actors enter and exit through the auditorium, apart from Hedda who is onstage throughout, in place when the audience arrive, picking out notes on her piano, the other constant companion being Berte, the maid, her warden and sometime co-conspirator. Ruth Wilson gives an extraordinary performance as Hedda, a character full of dualities. Her costume is a sheer white nightgown, appearing nude but not nude, everyone making a claim to her body, her beauty. She knows all too well that she has married boredom, represented by her husband Tesman, she knows she married “to settle”, she bites the hand that feeds her and the hands that don’t, she uses the word academic with the venom some actors reserve for the word critic. Yet Wilson makes this selfishness tragic, convincing us that Hedda dares not jump into another life, instead finding refuge in her ability to destroy- and even at that she fails.

Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre
Sinead Matthews and Ruth Wilson in Hedda Gabler

Hedda lives by a set of rules that only she truly understands, and the men in her life fail to live up to her code.  As Tesman, Kyle Soller makes him a likeable man, his only ‘crime’ being his ambition, his subject matter being incredibly niche, but a nice man, in love with his wife, and presenting a clearer moral code than Hedda. As Lovborg, Chukwudi Iwuji brings a powerful energy to the stage, both as a sober, successful writer, and then as a destroyed man, an alcoholic given alcohol by the scheming Hedda, yet failing to live up to the role of Dionysus that she has set him- she recoils from the  excesses that he indulges in. Sinead Matthews is wonderful as Mrs. Elvsted, focus of Hedda’s jealousy, a muse to Lovborg that Hedda will never be to Tesman, living a life of risk that Hedda would never take. In the press, Rafe Spall has made much of the honour of working with Ruth Wilson, but the truth is that the evening belongs to his revelatory performance as Brack. Brack’s are rarely sexy, but here his sexual interest in Hedda is palpable, the tension can be cut with a knife when they are on stage together, and it becomes clear that he is an abusive, powerful man, especially when Van Hove once again demonstrates effective use of red liquid at the play’s climax.

Book now for Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre
Kate Duchene, Kyle Soller, Ruth Wilson, Rafe Spall and Sinead Matthews in Hedda Gabler

This is an intellectual production rather than an emotional one, and it is occasionally too cool for its glacial good. This is particularly the case at the play’s climax, when Hedda finally rips through her barriers and cries with despair, yet the other characters appear even more uncaring and distant. Whilst this works within the production’s concept, it does distance the audience, and throughout we are kept at an emotional arm’s length. Although it fails to reach the dizzying heights of his A View From the Bridge, (very little ever will), Van Hove’s production is never less than interesting, creating memorable stage pictures, and containing powerful, committed, acting from the ensemble.

Until 21 March 2017


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