Look, I appreciate it’s never rainbows and sunshine in Hedda Gabler but, even by Ibsen’s standards, this National Theatre production is intense and deeply morose. I didn’t catch this adaptation from Patrick Marber when it ran at the Lyttleton last year. I know it was the cause of much discussion for those who did see it, so I was pretty pleased when I heard it was embarking on a national tour. However, ‘pretty pleased’ would be the last words I’d use to describe my emotional state, even fifteen minutes in to this production. And, more than this, some elements in the dramatic finale made me feel very uneasy.
Hedda is routinely described as ‘the female Hamlet,’ though I can’t help but think that reflects slightly more on the availability of roles for women in theatre. But anyway, what I always take from that statement is how important the decision is in how to approach Hedda.
I prefer my Heddas spikey and fiery. As much fire as ice. I like the contrast, and, for me, that tends to create a more sympathetic arc as we witness the selfish Hedda struggle in a marriage she didn’t even want, play her juvenile and dangerous games, and gives us a stronger attachment to her as she ends up falling foul of the men in her life who wish to manipulate her. Hedda is horrible but we need that charisma in order to care.
So, my first issue with this NT production is, that’s categorically not the decision taken here.
I didn’t see Ruth Wilson’s take on the role so don’t know if that was different but, here, Lizzy Watts’s Hedda is miserable from the start. She begins the play slumped over her piano – the only luxury item that seems to have materialised from a husband that promised her endless society salons and a life of wealth. And she just goes downhill from here, spitefully spitting at Juliana (Christine Kavanagh), her new husband’s aunt, endlessly berating her maid Berte (Madelena Nedeva), and manipulating and taunting Mrs Elvsted (Annabel Bates), a naïve woman who falls into her circle.
There’s no humour or spark to this performance. I thought perhaps, therefore, it might be looking at Hedda through the prism of depression and madness. Hedda’s battles with the light flooding in through the windows indicative of a woman who wants to shut the world out. Only, that is a rather one-dimensional view of mental illness (depressed people do have a sense of humour, you know) and the intensely downbeat depiction makes it hard to care. This Hedda feels like a weight around our ankles.
Direction comes from Ivo van Hove and, well, you can tell. That familiar stark minimalism, and the excellent manipulation of lighting from erstwhile collaborator, Jan Versweyveld, are his hallmarks. But I was rather surprised, and a little disappointed, to see the revisiting of a familiar ‘trick.’
Now, a little bit spoiler-y here but for those of you who saw the magnificent A View from the Bridge, you will no doubt remember the dramatic injection of red at the climax of this show. It was stark, it was shocking, and it was stunning. Well, that exact same trick is pulled again here, and I found that such a shame.
In a finale that sees Hedda writhing on the floor, emotionally beaten by the men she thought she had on a leash, the flash of red appears again. A manifestation of blood, of violence, from Brack (Adam Best). The blood must have been startling for those in the audience for Hedda – its vivid colour and its meaning shocking against the austere colour palette of the set – but all I could think was, I’ve seen this one before.
And then there was the climax itself. I fear I’m becoming a broken record, and I do over-analyse my own reactions when my back is put up with the way women characters are depicted but, lordy, lordy, did I have a problem with the climax to this Hedda Gabler…
Hedda’s going to die, we know this. Hedda is going to kill herself, we know this too. The ending is already bleak enough but, here, I felt her death was eroticised. The scene with Brack was extended and awful. He stands towering above her writhing bloodied body, a sexual monster as Hedda is reduced in the most horrible of ways.
Why? Why do this? Such a grotesque way to end what can – and should – be a powerful tragedy of a caged bird. Here though, this felt like the fetishizing of a woman’s humiliation. No more. I’m done with this, I really am. I don’t care how much of a pernickety outlier that makes me.
This production is currently on tour across the UK and Ireland. See here for dates and ticket information.
All production images by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg