Tuesday 24 October 2017

Hedda Gabler

23rd October, 2017

‘all I’ve ever learned from love
was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you’

As we near the climax of Ivo van Hove’s uber-contemporary production of Hedda Gabler the angelically anguished tones of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’ echo around the auditorium. While the above lyric is cut from this musical interlude I can’t help but think it sums up Ibsen’s play (in a new fresh and frank adaptation by Patrick Marber) and the titular character pretty well.

Disconnected and bored, Hedda longs for excitement, for purpose, for ‘control’ from within a society in which her main duty is to be a wife and mother, both roles which she actively denies – her maiden name gives the play its title and she burns with relish the manuscript, or ‘child’ of Lovborg and Thea. She is pushed and pulled by the men in her life, her academic husband, Tesman (who’s worst crime is being dull), the roguish Judge Brack, and fellow academic and recovered alcoholic, Eilert Lovborg. But Hedda pushes back. She regains a perverse power through her influence over these men, she is neither here nor there, her life neither real nor fantasy. Living vicariously through others, having ‘control’ through her cruel manipulation of Lovborg and the naïve Thea Elvsted is a means of creation, a means of being. To have ‘control’ is to have a purpose and a lasting proof of one’s existence. Yet, ultimately, inevitably, Hedda sees life as a mere farce and the greatest accomplishment one can achieve is to end it, to make that final conscious, autonomous decision.

… so Leonard Cohen’s haunting lyrics (piercingly conveyed by Buckley’s ethereal voice – the best version of the song, in my opinion) can here refer to Hedda’s craving for beauty, excitement and thrills, for sensuality and scandal, but also her disconnection from reality and her incredibly nihilistic response.

A few years ago Van Hove was very much flavour of the month (I say this as someone who adored his A View From The Bridge), yet with this success came the inevitable backlash. His work has been criticised for being overly stylised, more concerned with aesthetics than a dramaturgical response to a play, and while I wouldn’t refute those claims completely, I think Hedda is a case in which he gets the balance right. The set up – newlyweds, Hedda and Tesman, have recently moved into a grand, yet sparse house – lends itself well to van Hove’s style. White expanses of plasterboard walls are broken only by the most minimal furniture; a lamp, a blind, a (rather grubby) sofa. There is a sense of the opulence that could be, but is as yet unrealised – in my mind the house wouldn’t look out of place in one of those fashionable Scandi Noir political dramas. Hence we are treated to the spare, spiny visuals we associate with this director’s work without it feeling incongruous.

In fact, Jan Versweyveld’s set has a subtlety and ghostliness which creeps up on you. Something about the room feels off from the outset, but it wasn’t until the second half of the play when I figured out what it was. The industrial-chic stainless steel fireplace sits slightly off centre, and the twin glass cabinets (one containing two pistols, the other a fire extinguisher) either side of the fireplace are not level with each other. Within an interior design aesthetic that I associate heavily with neatness there is a distinct lack of symmetry. Everything is off kilter. These small details are a brilliant way of imbuing the production with a sense of the uncanny, we know something is not right, but we can’t quite put our finger on what or why.

I also liked that the stage contained no visible exits. The cast come and go through the auditorium, and consequently we are situated – trapped – with Hedda in that room. The boarding up of the single window and source of natural light towards the play’s closing moments is (pardon the pun) ‘the final nail in the coffin’.

Lizzy Watts naturally stands out as a desensitised Hedda, her monotone voice biting through the more emotional histrionics of characters such as Lovborg (Richard Pyros) and Thea (Annabel Bates). If Watts’ performance seems isolating and alienating, this only heightens Hedda’s increasing dissociation with the world around her. Also impressive is Adam Best’s Brack, while initially appearing caddish he grows into a threatening and imposing figure as the play progresses. If his blackmailing and thuggish manhandling of Hedda isn’t shocking enough, his disturbing promise to ‘occupy her fully’ is chilling.

I confess that at the interval I was unsure – about both Ibsen’s play and van Hove’s production. To be fair, the first half of the play is heavy on exposition and is mainly a set up for the more dramatic second half. Yet I found myself inwardly eye-rolling at a couple of overly pretentious bits of direction, namely the repetitive use of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ (I enjoyed it the first time, but by the third or fourth time I was longing for silence instead – conversely, Nina Simone’s rendition of ‘Wild Is The Wind’ makes a memorable finale) and Hedda’s manic decoration of the house by stapling discarded flowers to the walls. I get the impulsiveness, but it comes across as rather twee in its faux bohemian depiction of feminine ‘hysteria’. All the van Hove trademarks are present: the stripping back of excess, the long silences, the pulsing rhythms which underscore moments of tension – there’s even a taste of the red gunge (I don’t know what else to call it) which so searingly coloured his AVFTB – and to be fair, I’d have felt short-changed had they not been. By the second half I was thoroughly engrossed. The tension is ratchetted up ten-fold and the final scenes are truly thrilling despite the knowledge of what’s coming.

Despite any initial misgivings, van Hove and Watts had me gripped, and there remains plenty of food for thought regarding the play’s characters, themes, and the distinctly stylised manifestation of these in this production. I’d be interested to see a more traditional interpretation with which to compare - Would it be as tense? Would it be as simultaneously involving and alienating? Would it be as claustrophobic? Would the characters become more or less sympathetic? Etc. Hedda is an enigma, but one I’m more than willing to puzzle over for weeks, months, and even years to come.

Hedda Gabler plays at Curve until 28th October.

Lizzy Watts and Adam Best in Hedda Gabler.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg

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