Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 21 March 2017
“I’ve never felt at home” … With Hedda Gabler, the ever prolific Ivo van Hove is making his National Theatre debut, so you can forgive him returning to a production which he has launched twice before – with the exceptional Dutch actress Halina Reijn in Amsterdam and with Elizabeth Marvel in New York.
This time however, he’s working with a new version of Ibsen’s play by Patrick Marber and has the equally extraordinary talents of Ruth Wilson leading his company. And as with his revelatory A View From The Bridge, this is a contemporary reworking of a classic that will frustrate some with its froideur but left me gasping at its gut-wrenching rawness.
As ever, van Hove’s spatial intelligence lends itself to a re-appreciation of the theatrical space in which he’s working. He’s previously invited audiences onstage at the Barbican, and backstage too and here in the Lyttelton, the wings are closed off by Jan Versweyveld‘s gallery-like white box and so characters make their entrances and exits through the same doors that we use – Judge Brack even arrives via the rear stalls at one point. And van Hove keeps things off-kilter onstage too, often pushing the action out to the far edges, focusing the eye on unexpected details like the eloquent sweep of Hedda’s back, the tapping foot of a nervy ever-watching Berthe.
Marber’s lightly modernised new version allows for dark flashes of humour but there’s no mistaking how lonely and sad this Hedda is, even more so for being so isolated in this modern-day setting. Finding herself trapped in the world of the idle rich, having decided “it was time to settle”, she soon finds herself appalled at her situation. Initially, Wilson blurs the line between malice and thoughtlessness in the extremes of her behaviour but we’re soon left in no doubt that we’re in the hands of as expert a manipulator as Alice Morgan, albeit with less self-control, hints of fragility and frustration are never far away as she rages against a world she sees as determined to strip her of her power, her individuality, the sanctity of her own body as the repeated notes about children and child-bearing make plain.
And the care with which that world has been (re)constructed makes fresh new dramatic sense. Kyle Soller’s Tesman is refreshingly decent, Kate Duchêne’s Aunt Juliana perfectly obliging, Sinéad Matthews’ Mrs Elvsted possessed of a self-confidence we don’t often see in her interactions with Chuk Iwudi’s Lovborg. Against this normality, Hedda’s self-destructive urges are heightened, agonisingly so in the textured lighting design by Versweyveld and musical accompaniment from Joni Mitchell, and as Rafe Spall’s swaggeringly sexual Brack exerts his sickening power inch by inch, the production culminates in a succession of stunning but horrifying images, all correctly disturbing. As brutal a Hedda as you’ll get.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)Photos: Jan VersweyveldBooking until 21st March