Superb remaking of 'Hedda Gabler' at National Theatre

(Left to right:) Chukwudi Iwuji, Ruth WIlson, and Kyle Soller in Ivo van Howe's production of "Hedda Gabler" at the National Theatre in London.

LONDON — Ivo van Hove, the Amsterdam-based director, has done it again with this sensational production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. Like his stunning production of The Crucible on Broadway, this is a startling renovation of a modern classic. Patrick Marber’s new version of the script makes Ibsen’s 19th-century Hedda fully contemporary; instead of having to find the feminist relevance, it is fully apparent in her language of unhappiness, of spoiled-brat-ness, of cruelty,and all  her longing for a larger, freer, more beautiful life. Here is the trailer for the show:

This contemporary clarity, this revealing of this famously reckless woman, is due to the splendid performance of Ruth Wilson, but it is also a function of the set (Jan Versweyveld).  No longer a furniture-filled oppressive Victorian drawing room, this is a new apartment in a posh, high-rise building. The walls are unfinished, the vast space contains only a piano, a sofa, and florists’ pails filled with flowers (later to be, oddly but somehow perfectly, stapled to the walls). When company arrives, they are buzzed in, and Hedda, wearing only a slip, will add high heels and lipstick.  Wilson’s physicality shows us Hedda’s emotional roller-coaster: She suddenly droops and then she’s wild.

All fustiness, fussiness, and frumpiness have been swept away. Tesman (Kyle Soller), Hedda’s husband, is no longer a cliché figure of fun, but rather a recognizable academic obsessed with arcane research: boyish, naïve about women and the world, and thus easily manipulated.  His Aunt Juliana (Kate Duchene) is no longer the ancient silly person in the hat, but rather a dignified and kind middle-aged woman. The maid Berte (Eva Magyar), assigned to a chair near the door, speaks only twice, but her face reveals how appalled she is by Hedda as she manipulates everyone around her. When Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji), the love of Hedda’s girlhood, tells the terrible story of the lost child to explain how he lost his manuscript, Berta is the only one who weeps. Mrs. Elvsted (Sinead Matthews) is courageous enough defy public opinion but not courageous enough to defy Hedda; she may be Hedda’s foil, but together they demonstrate how confined women are, how desperate for some agency in their fates, some meaning in their lives, showing us what Hedda means when she describes her life as a trap: “engagement, marriage, honeymoon, and whatever hell comes next.”

The perfect match for Wilson’s superb Hedda is Rafe Spall’s Judge Brack. Taller than anyone on stage, wearing tight pants and a carrying himself with a formidable sexual swagger, he dominates the stage and everyone in it.  When he says “How very her,” we feel how well he knows Hedda’s desperation and fears: Their last scene, when he makes her understand just how thoroughly in his power she is, is visually shocking, a technique that Ivo van Hove has made his trademark. 

Having seen five plays in as many days, I find it fascinating to discover how totally unrelated productions nevertheless seem to inform one another. From the modern city of  Van Hove’s Hedda to Illyria (in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night) to Afghanistan (in Lindsey Ferrentino’s Ugly Lies the Bone), the issue of gender politics and its corollary of female power, is clearly the topic on stage at the National Theatre.