NT LIVE - Hedda Gabler

While the cats away, the mice will play! My other half has gone to America for a week, leaving me home alone. It’s amazing just how liberating it feels. Strange I suppose when it’s clear that I spend most days doing what I like anyway, but this time it feels different. I’ll usually say “oh you don’t mind if I go to London next week do you?” Or, “I’m heading out for tea on Thursday with the girls after work.” They are general statements marking my intent, and politely informing him of my movements.

Ruth Wilson was extraordinary in the lead role of Hedda. She brought the character up to date, and showed that a story written over 100 years ago still has so much resonance today. When you think of Ibsen, you might think of corsets, a historical tale, enjoyable to watch, but set around the past. This modern interpretation by Ivo Van Hove sees Hedda wandering around a vast stage barefoot, clothed only in her dressing gown or night slip. It adds to the feeling of entrapment and inner turmoil that Hedda is going through.

Ibsen purists would probably complain that turning it into a modern masterpiece detracts from the fact that he wrote the play at a historically important time for women. The 1890’s was the time of the New Woman, a feminist movement where women’s voices become more vocal and confident, and this uprising of the strong confident woman is somewhat obscured by the plays modern setting. It is also interesting that Ibsen called the play Hedda Gabler, rather than her married name of Hedda Tesman, but we have little concept of her aristocratic heritage in this version, the issue is mentioned, but little emphasis is placed on the fact she was more an aristocratic daughter than the wife of her husband that we see. But this said, this abridged version of Ibsen’s play conveys the most important messages that he was writing about.

The play commences with Hedda slumped over a piano, playing a mournful tune, whilst life goes on around her. Every step Ruth Wilson takes shows Hedda’s despair and desolation. Idly playing with the blinds, letting light and then dark play on the walls of the room she feels trapped in, shows the boredom and lack of fight she has in her depression. As Brack appears, a judge who has helped her acquire the home of her dreams, there is a poignant moment where Hedda tells him she has confined herself into a meaningless marriage. She is admitting it is better to be in a loveless marriage than left on the shelf.

Left on her own, however, Hedda is strong, feisty, almost demonic, as she grabs handfuls of flowers and throws them about the flat with such force and venom. She lets all of these feelings out, but not when anyone is watching her. She liberally decorates the wall with flowers she picks up from the floor, stapling them to the walls in a frenzy. Wilson conveys the secret side of Hedda, she gets inside Hedda’s mind and shows this wild spirit trapped inside her.

Whilst the play focuses on Hedda, it is worth pointing out that this version has a strong supporting cast. Kyle Soller plays her husband Tesman as an enthusiastic, vibrant personality. He enjoys what he does, he has an interest in the world, in books, in learning, but he is not a dry old crusty academic. His interest in life is the dynamic opposite of Hedda’s disinterest. There is even a point in the play where Hedda confirms she has no interest in anything he says; what lights up Tesman’s life throws Hedda’s into darkness.

Soller’s Tesman is a passionate person, and this is shown by his enthusiasm to reconstruct Lovborg’s manuscript that Hedda, in a moment of pure devilment burns to pieces. She knew what the manuscript meant to Lovborg, to Tesman, to Mrs Elvsted, but still she took sheer delight in burning those precious handwritten pages. Unlike Hedda’s privileged upbringing, Tesman has had to work for what he has achieved; he has known what it is like to struggle. He is hard working and decent. Hedda is full of melodramatic romanticism, constantly repeating the phrase “vine leaves in his hair,” with a sense of melancholy.

It is a play full of opposites, that when added together form a whole community. Judge Brack, a confident character, manipulative, aware as a judge of the criminal mind and careful to conceal his corruption of Hedda’s often unstable mind. Lovborg, a romantic figure who lives life to the full, is heading down a path to destruction. Mrs Elvsted, a woman bullied by Hedda at school, but who has grown, who has the strength to leave her husband and fight for what she wants. Aunt Julie, full of duty, dedicated to Tesman, and committed to others, which is refreshing in a play where everyone else is so self-absorbed.

This might not have been the historical version of Ibsen’s play, but it opens the audience’s eyes to see that even now, with so many options available to women, there are those that still feel trapped, helpless, and are ultimately boring themselves to death with a life less lived. 

So whilst at times this was a difficult play to watch, it was a great, unplanned, way to spend my evening!