Touring – reviewed at Theatre Royal and Derngate, Northampton
Hedda Gabler is arguably one of the great theatrical roles for a woman. Manipulative, destructive, melancholic, she is a maelstrom of negative emotion that infects everyone around her. Patrick Marber reinvented and updated Ibsen’s classic, Hedda Gabler, for the National Theatre and this thrilling production is now touring the country. This week it’s at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate Theatre and it’s fair to say that its unpredictability had last night’s audience on the edge of their seats.
But it is soon clear, as the story unfolds, that Marber’s update falls short of placing Hedda and her sycophants in the 21st century. Here we have Hedda and her new husband, the dull-as-dishwater college academic Tesman, living in a spacious apartment with vidicom entry and a flashy modern fireplace. Yet mobile phones, tablets or computers, don’t appear to have been invented in Marber’s Norway – probably because their use would destroy key plot points.
So the couple still send letters (who does that any more?) and risk handwriting manuscripts without any thought to how perilous it is – though the neighbourhood has embraced what I can only assume is a lap-dancing club.
Ivo van Hove’s production is coldly clinical and dispassionate with Jan Versweyveld’s expansive letterbox set distorting the cast’s speech to make it sound as though they’re standing in an aircraft hangar. The hardboard walls are bare, there is hardly any furniture yet, bizarrely (perhaps it’s a Norwegian thing) there are buckets of flowers which, later in the production are destroyed (a shocking waste of blooms) in a frenzy of rage and frustration.
In the centre of the room is a piano and Hedda is slumped over its keys, picking out a dirge-like tune. She’s only been married a few months and she is bored. The marriage was a huge mistake and now she finds herself living in a flat that she doesn’t like, unable to fund its redecoration, and burdened with a man she abhors.
It’s a situation many will recognise but what is surprising is her reaction – or lack of it. Hedda can barely summon the energy to get dressed. She doesn’t go out, she’s rude to everyone, and appears unable to extricate herself.
Abhin Galeya’s affable Tesman seems innocuous enough but the unstable, caustic, Hedda can barely conceal her contempt for his attention to her and his love of history.
“Nothing excites him more than a dusty old bookshop!” She complains to her former lover, Brack. “I’m not interest in trug making in the middle ages. I don’t know anyone who is!”
For someone so indifferent and lethargic to life it is difficult to believe that she had such a racy past. Pre-marriage Brack had shared her bed as well as another academic, the alcoholic and volatile Lovborg.
Now dried out Lovborg has returned and his arrival is a catalyst that sets Hedda on a destructive course.
Her power and influence over the men in her life is astonishing, her manipulation deadly and her lack of empathy making her a borderline sociopath. How is it possible for them to love her?
Lizzy Watts’ gives a bold, fearless and beautifully nuanced performance as the unhinged, manic depressive Hedda.
She’s engrossing. Often there is just a slight change of expression, a raised eyebrow or a crinkle in the side of her mouth. She rarely exerts herself beyond moving from chair to floor.
Yet you can’t take your eyes off her. What’s she going to do next? Who will be hurt? Her erratic and unpredictable outbursts, particularly when she reaches for her father’s old pistols, send out shockwaves.
But Ibsen’s 19th century Hedda is a completely different kettle of fish to Marber’s modern interpretation, with their roles, and influences in society, in stark contrast.
That’s one of the problems of updating a story. Just where do you stop before altering the context?
Ibsen’s Hedda, for all her flaws, would still be a victim to social convention, trapped in a marriage and forced to make the best of a bad job. A modern woman would head for the divorce courts and take him for every penny.
She’s degraded and abused by Brack but refuses to be cowed by his violence. Even so, her final scenes in his hands, are mesmerising and almost unbearable to watch.
Ivo van Hove’s direction is steady, the pace barely changing even in the play’s shocking denouement, which does occasionally affect the tension.
Peripheral characters are barely used. Madiena Nedeva as Berte, the maid, sits on a chair and occasionally buzzes in a new guest. In the second act she stands up to light the fire.
Christine Kavanagh, as Tesman’s aunt, also only has a couple of brief scenes, which is a waste.
The men – Tesman, Brack (a quite menacing Adam Best) and love rival Lovborg (Richard Pyros) dance around Hedda like moths to a flame. You know that it won’t end well.