I avoid reading reviews before seeing a play and, despite seeing this late in the run I was pretty successful in avoiding detailed commentary, though inevitably the odd thing got by and, of course, director Ivo van Hove’s reputation went before him. The first thing I have to say after seeing the production is that this is by no means a travesty along the lines of, say, Simon Stone’s Yerma
. Patrick Marber’s ‘version’ struck me as quite faithful – though there are probably a few minor cuts and possibly even a bit of rearrangement, but nothing radically divergent from Ibsen’s original.
When I say the version is faithful I should stress I mean the dialogue is close to what I remember from other productions and from reading other translations. Without buying Marber’s script (no thanks!) I have no way of knowing whether some of the stuff we see on the Lyttelton stage is a result of Marber’s interpretation of Ibsen’s directions or of van Hove’s directorial dictates. I was disappointed, looking at van Hove’s rather bare stage, to note the absence of General Gabler’s portrait. Perhaps this is because a highlight of the last production I saw was Sheridan Smith's Hedda standing in front of the portrait and seeming to take the place of her father. But, as disappointments go, this was minor compared with what followed. For some reason I had been almost expecting a pretentious, intellectualised version of this classic story; but what we got seemed, to me at least, to be characterised by mere puerility.Hedda Gabler
is the story of an unhinged, over-privileged woman who plays a variant of Shag, Marry, Kill with the three male characters. It’s a proposition that would, though I say it myself, make a good essay topic. But I’d follow it with the traditional ‘discuss’ instruction and not ‘illustrate your answer by putting on a major public production’. I’m afraid I tend to sigh when I read that directors like van Hove ‘shed light’ on classic texts. I haven’t seen any of his other productions but with this Hedda Gabler
he seems to me to have picked out a few themes that a reasonably bright 12 year old could have identified and concentrated on them at the cost of sucking the drama out of the piece and replacing it, essentially, with shouting. Ruth Wilson manages to present Hedda as a half credible character, albeit quite barking. Nobody else in the cast, with the possible exception of Kyle Soller as Tesman, succeeded in coming across as more than a caricature. Rafe Spall, as Judge Brack, was a seedy rent-a-slimeball of the Alan Rickman school. Sinead Matthews as Thea Elvsted
sounded like a dime store Marilyn Monroe (no reflection on any of these actors, I must stress; I’m pretty sure they were all under orders). Kate Duchene’s Aunt Juliana was out of PG Wodehouse via Miranda Hart. Poor Eilat Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji) delivered half his lines as if they were Shakesperean blank verse (sometimes with a level of histrionics that would make Olivier seem naturalistic). Accents were pick and mix – Soller and Matthews American, Spall, Duchene and Wilson very English and Eva Magyar as Berte Hungarian (I’m guessing – certainly thick East European) – perhaps to hint that the maid is an exploited immigrant. And Berte in this production seems almost – for no reason I can fathom – to have some sort of telepathic rapport with her mistress; doing things like bringing on the doomed manuscript and the fatal pistol – both of which Hedda gets for herself in every other version I know.
The thing is, it’s not a profound revelation that Hedda Gabler is a bit deranged. We don’t need to see her stapling flowers to the wall or switching from giggles to violent anger in a amateur psychologist’s representation of bipolar disorder. The brooding menace of Judge Brack is very clear – and superbly ramped up by Ibsen. What is gained by having him make it very explicit is not at all clear (indeed, in my view, a great deal is lost by this policy). General Gabler’s sister is a pleasant, well-meaning if rather innocent lady and making her a sort of dumb version of Bertie Wooster's Aunt Dahlia is not illuminating. And stopping the action every so often to spin a Joni Mitchell or Jeff Buckley record is, frankly, an atrocious disruption of any dramatic flow the production had left.
I could go on but I won’t. I’ll just finish by saying that, Brian Friel’s ill-advised extra scene notwithstanding, Anna Mackminn’s Hedda Gabler
at the Old Vic was, in my opinion, enormously better in every department. However, that’s long gone. If you want to see this one, it runs until 21 March. It says sold out for most dates, but seats crop up frequently as individual performances draw near. https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/hedda-gabler/whats-on