Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 4 February 2017
A COLD-BURNING BRILLIANCE… A century ago Henrik Ibsen saw, with more clarity than the strait bourgeois world around him, that it wouldn’t do. Not the hypocrisies, not the politely ruthless mercantilism, and above all, not the constriction of women’s role.
Females, he rightly perceived, were volatile high- explosive substances, likely to blow any minute and cause widespread damage. Of all his creations the strangest is Hedda Gabler: the bored and reluctant Mrs Tesman, a spirited General’s daughter reduced to respectable nullity and not liking it. Rarely has she been more alarming, yet more credible, than in Ruth Wilson’s stunning performance under Ivo van Hove.
I admit to a slight impatience at first with the modish directorial obsession to frame plays in boxes: van Hove’s A View from the Bridge worked well with this same designer, Versweyveld, a degree of dark industrial starkness suiting it. Stone’s Yerma put Billie Piper in a glass case, Robert Icke got Bunny Christie to turn the Lyttelton into a series of sliding peepholes, and now we have the Tesmans’ apartment is a big bare white breezeblock box with few furnishings beyond a stripped-down piano and a white sofa.
And, symbolically, no way out except through the auditorium. It is wingless, just like its heroine. Occasionally – notably at the start, when our heroine sits slumped ten minutes at her piano while the others discuss her – we have to accept that characters are probably in another part of the house entirely, and can’t hear each other.
But never mind. van Hove has done it again, as he did at the Young Vic with Miller, and the play keeps you gripped, helpless, uneasy and faintly horrified from the start. Some passages are like Pinter only with a proper plot; others suddenly violent, throat-catchingly so as Hedda’s sullen restlessness erupts into daemonic, primitive rage, wrecking, stapling dead flowers to the walls, burning, dancing, punching the air.
There are refreshing departures from habit: the scholarly Tesman is not a starchy older man but Kyle Soller as a cool, fit American academic, who could be found anxiously manoeuvring towards secure tenure at any university today. Chukwudi Iwuji as the reformed wild man Lovborg (well, reformed until Hedda taunts him into alcoholic relapse) is not Byronic, the “vine leaves in his hair” being Hedda’s fantasy.
Rather he has, in early scenes, a gravity which makes it credible that he had an earnest intellectual relationship with Mrs Elvsted. She is played by Sinéad Matthews: always a pleasure, deftly comedic, touching, and a perfect foil and victim in the manipulative bad-girl scenes with Hedda. Indeed when Hedda wheedles out facts about Lovborg it is pure rom-com,and none the worse for that: this is the ancestress of all disruptive women. Everything that happens must be about her, and her ruthlessness is beyond Medean because nobody has betrayed her but herself.
The modern look of it, the John Cage plinking piano background, contemporary ballads between scenes (including Hallelujah) and general absence of bustles and chintzy furniture, creates a risk. It puts all the more pressure on Ruth Wilson to express Hedda’s nihilistic, control-crazy behaviour as something universal and perennial. We are not given period cues which explain why she would have felt she had to marry Tesman without caring for him, and why her boredom and lack of work or purpose in life escalates into criminal delusionality and suicide. This challenge Wilson meets magnificently: we believe her. She is all real, all dangerous, from her first calculated insult to Aunt Juliana (Kate Duchene) and her studied flirtation with Brack (Rafe Spall plays him a great deal more violent and viciously macho than I have ever seen). The late General’s old pistols racked on the white wall are a threat, but no more than Wilson’s blazing intensity. Her rejection of pregnancy – “I will not make something that makes demands!” is pure Lady Macbeth. When Juliana says with dignity “I like company and I like to love” incomprehension is on Hedda’s face; when she descends towards cold madness the final chink of reason, of desire for a role and appreciation and love, is pitiful.
box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 4 feb