Hedda Gabler is a newly married woman with nothing to live for (and everything to lose). She’s sick of everything and bored by everyone but she doesn’t know what she wants instead. In this production, she’s not so much a woman who married the wrong man and doesn’t know what to do with her life; she’s an upper-middle class woman who has always been difficult (‘so I don’t get a butler?’). She’s got strange tastes too: convincing her ex-lover Lovborg to commit suicide, she tells him ‘make it beautiful’. She only feels guilty when she finds out how ‘vulgar’ his suicide was; shooting himself in the crotch in a brothel. Paul Levy describes it best: as ‘her privileging of the aesthetic over the ethical’. She’s the kind of person who loves the idea of Ophelia drowning herself without actually thinking about what a shit position Ophelia is put in.
I don’t know the work of Ivo van Hove that well but I do know that he seems to like sprawling, beautiful sets. That’s his aesthetic. Ivo van Hove has directed three separate productions of Hedda Gabler, but they’ve each had the same concept and design. One in New York, one for Toneelgroep Amsterdam (with the same set as the New York production) and now one at the National Theatre. The set is designed in almost exactly the same way as van Hove’s previous two, but with drywall instead of what looks like insulation boards. The sparse set is a new home, not yet furnished with the stretching white walls of the Kings of War set.
Everything onstage is slightly mismatched: the only symmetrical thing is the pattern of rectangles in the drywall. There’s an old dirty sofa, a fully functioning piano with wooden panels missing, a window on one side but not the other – the play is full of things that feel slightly off. Like the music: from the beginning we see Hedda (Ruth Wilson) tinkering on the piano. But piano music also plays at various moments throughout the show. The first time we hear the piano music Hedda is nowhere near the piano: it’s a clever, slightly trippy, horror movie-esque moment.
Everyone who comes near Hedda gets sucked into her claustrophobic world – Hedda doesn’t consider making something of her life, having a life outside the apartment, so the world of the play, Hedda’s world, only exists inside the apartment. Props that actors bring in with them when they enter are already onstage, actors stand with the person they’re bitching about sitting in between them and the limits of what actors pretend not to see/hear according to theatrical convention are tested.
I have to admit that I didn’t initially get the metatheatre thing. And not all of it fits. There’s no blackout before the curtain call, instead, everyone just walks downstage, Globe-style, and we realise we’re meant to start clapping. I’m not sure whether this is a message about the reality of the events in the play, the nature of Hedda’s life or the relation of the events in the play to the lives of the audience. And I’m not sure I care, simply because there are also moments when it’s difficult to tell if the script is intentionally being self-conscious or if it’s just badly written. Like when the characters repeat ‘ten o’clock’ about five times at the end of the first act. The play drifts between intensely sharp moments that keep you on tenterhooks (mostly when we see Ruth Wilson as Hedda manipulate everyone around her, and then get manipulated hopelessly) and scenes that lag (usually anything that feels slightly preserved-in-aspic like Aunt Juliana’s weird obsession over her hat or anyone worrying about their reputation).
A final note: ten out of 10 to Ivo van Hove for directing a play with a 50/50 gender balance and a diverse cast. He’s widely acknowledged as one of the best directors in the world right now (and I agree) but this is a refreshing break for his London audiences between seeing his all-white Toneelgroep company perform Kings of War in April 2016 and Roman Tragedies later this year.
Favourite line: ‘joy is always farcical’.