Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, in a new version by Patrick Marber, directed by Ivo van Hove, is stark and bleak and leaves a lingering sense of empty despair.
Hedda and her academic husband Tesman are newly-weds and the play opens as they awaken on their first morning in their new home. All seems well at first. Tesman greets his well-meaning Aunt Juliana with familial affection, buoyed by his belief he will soon get his promotion to a professorship and from there proceed to providing the life of luxury he has promised to his new bride. He appears happy, optimistic. So far so good.
But as Hedda rouses herself from a fitful night’s sleep, her frustrated dissatisfaction with the new house, her new husband and every person who touches their life, gradually reveals itself as a deep and all-consuming self-loathing at her own impotence. This, it seems, compels her to destroy and destruct those around her in an attempt to prove her influence, her impact, at least on something, while recognising the desperate futility of it all. She has neither interest nor purpose in life. She is trapped in a restrictive conventionality but most importantly she lacks the courage to break free of it – and, as she herself says, without courage one can’t live. Inevitably, this can only end one way.
Jan Versweyveld’s set is a vast, empty container of white walls and dark floor that shrieks of a Scandi noir tension between the bland, surface of conventionality and the dark complexities that lie beneath, almost as a metaphor for the character of Hedda herself. The only way out of this space is to descend the stairs leading from the stage into the auditorium, in other words, to break through the fourth wall. Tellingly, neither Hedda nor her maid gets to step out of this box.
The directing and acting style swings between a somewhat theatrical natural realism and a highly stylised affectation which is appropriately disconcerting, yet puzzlingly awkward. The characters also at times both leave the stage and sit ‘offstage’ on the set, raising questions about who is truly present and absent within a given scene. In fact, the whole piece appears as a string of veiled metaphors that whisper to the intellect but evade the soul. Strangely unemotional and chilling.
Runs 17th – 21st October