This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide
National Theatre presents
by Henrik Ibsen, new version by Patrick Marber
Director Ivo van Howe
The National Theatre’s 2016 production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is now on tour, directed by Ivo van Howe and with Patrick Marber’s revision of this classic text.
Power games, manipulation and an apathetic view of life are this play’s poison, along with some unoriginal takes on the male gaze and women’s place in the world (and which disappointingly, considering this is a revision of a play from 1890, doesn’t seem to have progressed very far). Marber ensures there is humour in this bleak piece, however, it could be blacker—it often feels flippant and jarring rather than a welcome release.
Hedda Gabler (Lizzy Watts) is beautiful, bored and just back from honeymoon with her academic husband Tesman (Abhin Galeya). He is distracted by his career and already seeming uninterested in his wife until she says she is pregnant. Tesman’s rival Lovborg is on the brink of publishing a major work he has been writing (longhand—see below) with Mrs Elvsted (Annabel Bates): another unhappily married woman, and in love with Lovborg (Richard Pyros).
Hedda plays with men and she has history with judge Brack (a dangerous and rather unjudgely Adam Best) and Lovborg. She tests and pushes them as far as she can, happy to tempt the alcoholic Lovborg back to drink. Not stopping at the men, Hedda is also no friend to Mrs Elvsted, continuing on her mission to destroy all around her, including herself.
Sheathed in a flesh-coloured silk dress, Hedda prowls barefoot around her vast and virtually empty apartment, save for a beautifully lit glass balcony door and a few items from Ikea (set and lighting design by Jan Versewyveld). The balcony door is symbolically boarded up by the cast later in the play, cordless power tools shutting out the light as Hedda descends into darkness.
Throwing flowers in anger and nailgunning them to the walls, Watts’s portrayal is petulant, impetuous and brings to mind a stroppy teen, complete with eye-rolling and sarcasm. She puts up something of a fight with Brack but it is clear he alone holds her interest, ultimately the cause of her undoing.
There are several elements of this staging and re-working which don’t add up. With its camera door-entry system, ably policed by omnipresent maid Berta (Madlena Nedeva), this is a contemporary setting. Why then stick to a handwritten manuscript of which the only copy Hedda sets alight? Memory stick, iCloud anyone?
Ibsen highlights the plight of women trapped in marriage—a groundbreaking issue in the 19th century—however, Marber may have stuck too rigidly to Ibsen’s preliminary notes for the play, specifically, “women have no influence on public affairs. So they want to influence individuals spiritually”.
Hedda’s only power over the characters in this play relate to her body and sexuality—men want her physically, Aunt Juliana (Christine Kavanagh) is nurturing and fixated on Hedda’s fertility. Berta is treated appallingly by everyone (because she is a servant) and Mrs Elvsted helps a man using her brain only for him to “own” the work and dismiss her contribution. Welcome to the 21st century.
Another of Ibsen’s notes for the play was, “men and women don’t belong in the same century”. Whilst I’d been led to believe they are also from different planets, either way, this Hedda Gabler is cold, unsettling and nervy, but, regrettably, not a play for our times.
Images by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg