Review – Hedda Gabler, National Theatre

Friday 9 December 2016

nt-live-hedda-gabler-portrait-listings-image-uk-722x1024A few weeks ago, on the Nothern Line, while Phil was running his fingers along the lines of type in the Metro he noticed he was sitting next to a woman concentrating on a script with all the “Mrs Elvsted” parts underlined. Suspecting it might be for the National’s Hedda Gabler he went off and did a bit of internet stalking and discovered that it was Sinéad Matthews who takes that role in the this production.

Perhaps Phil should have torn her manuscript into pieces, scribbled notes all over it so that she could piece it back together again to get a better understanding of her role. To explain that would need a SPOILER ALERT. Of course if it had been Ruth Wilson (who plays this Hedda) next to him he’d have torched it for her.

This is Ivo Van Hove‘s take on Henrik Ibsen‘s play. Despite this being Phil’s first Van Hove production, his reputation preceded him. Phil came assuming it would be in a contemporary setting, set in a stark box (set and lighting Jan Versweyveld – the director’s partner) and with the cast sometimes wandering around barefooted. It didn’t disappoint. Andrew who eschews naked feet, on or off the stage, had dodged this one. Probably just as well.

Phil tried to remember the other actresses he’d seen in the role. He could remember his first Hedda, Janet Suzman, at Brighton in the Seventies and Juliet Stevenson at the National some 27 years ago and of course Sheridan Smith at the Vic just four years ago. Yet googling a list of famous Heddas revealed, among others, Rosamund Pike. Phil saw her do it just 6 years ago at Richmond. No recollection initially. Says a lot about her Hedda, or more likely, Phil’s memory.

“Just married. Bored already. Hedda longs to be free…” says the National’s website. Not surprising looking at the empty Skandi-chic house, with bare plaster walls, the odd pieces of furniture and tissue dispenser, that she inabits with her new hubby George Tesman (Kyle Soller).

Tesman’s academic, but not as academic as writer Eilert Loveborg (Chuckwudi Iwuji). Hedda’s a manipulative piece of work and seizes an opportunity to change the literary pecking order by meddling in both his life and that of her old school acquaintance Thea Elvsted.

Phil had something of a Déjà vu at the interval. Brent, who was probably experiencing his first Hedda said, “She’s not very nice, is she?” Andrew had said the very same thing when we saw Pike do it at Richmond.

It was satisfying to see the cast have been drilled in furniture shifting and a little DIY. Cordless power drill’s are used to board up the sliding window to outside, there is a video intercom for the front door and in a move that would horrify Constance Spry, Hedda uses an industrial stapler to pin bedraggled blooms onto the walls (unsuccessfully on the stage right wall at our preview). Judge Brack (Rafe Spall) and Tesman wear some nicely fitted trousers.

The updated setting largely works, unless, that is, you take it literally. Phil could accept that Hedda might bore Mrs Tesman with her honeymoon snaps. Not everyone is on facebook. But he struggled to accept other technological advances weren’t present. Surely Løvborg would have backed up his work up or at least possessed a mobile and called to locate his lost manuscript. Disaster might have been averted. Perhaps the signal’s not great in Norway. Maybe he’s on the O2 network.

And when Hedda insults Tesman’s aunt (Kate Duchêne) about her hat we were, for once, onside with this dreadful woman, at least on matters of taste. It’s rather dull floppy black affair. In a period setting this would have been a millinery marvel, preferably with feathers.

And there are other irritations. The Tesman maid (Éva Magyar) sits in a chair on stage throughout, doing little more than answering the intercom and she can’t even be bothered to do that at one point. Is ennui catching? Wilson and maid are on stage as we enter the auditorium the former with her back to us, plinky plonking away on the piano. There’s also some annoying plinky plonking music as background noise.

Most entrances and exits are made using stairs from the stage and entering/exiting through doors in the auditorium. The more academic will no doubt view this as symbolic of Hedda feeling trapped. Phil assumed the lack of an easy and smooth way out was metaphor for Brexit. There are french windows for goodness sake. It’s present day, surely at least one of them has seen a Rattigan?

Effective silences were underscored with a cacophony of seasonal coughing from the TB ward Christmas outing in the audience. Is this the thinking audience’s equivalent of Dreamgirl‘s “whooping”? “Scene changes” are scored with Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” when it’s not “Hallelujah” (presumably a tribute to Mr Cohen). Yeah, Hedda’s blue, we get it; you haven’t forgiven your architect for not installing doors.

Phil felt a touch of brief sympathy for Hedda (or perhaps this was for Wilson). Brack swigs from a can of cherry cola?/tomato juice?/ribena? and regurgitates it over Hedda’s nightie and face. Still, it could have been worse. Tesman opens a panel in the wall and takes out Chinese food which he devours and thankfully manages to keep down. Do all Norwegian homes come with built in takeaways?

We must have a word with Patrick Marber who provided the adaptation. A character says they were “stood” rather than “standing” (as in “I was stood outside”). It’s creeping into the language like (correct usage) the overused “like” and “I was sat there”. Stop it immediately.

Despite this nit-picking about the gimmickry, rather bizarrely, much of it works. There are cooly understated performances from all. It’s often compelling and atmospherically achieved and a degree claustrophobia is achieved despite the cavernous acting space. Though clearly not engaging enough for the woman next to Phil who slept through most of it only to have her head-nodding disturbed by the gunshots.

You’ll be relieved to know that Ruth Wilson does give good Hedda.




7 Responses to “Review – Hedda Gabler, National Theatre”

  1. Sandown Says:

    Actresses love playing Hedda. They get to create havoc, instead of just loving and suffering, as leading ladies generally have to do on stage.

    However, modern subsidised theatre directors think that it is the audiences who should do the suffering. The torture that the National Theatre is inflicting with its current version of “Peter Pan” seems to call for United Nations intervention.

  2. glenmoranjie Says:

    Much as I hated “Treasure Island” and “” with a passion, I loved Peter Pan last night. Funny, sad, poignant, inventive and ultimately very moving.

  3. webcowgirl Says:

    It would have really been so different with an acknowledgement of the role of modern technology in staving off boredom, wouldn’t it? But Hedda did come off like the classic Millenial otherwise. Afraid the tubercular audiences are just that time of the year … probably more so in a preview as attendees are much more likely to not be able to afford decent housing.

  4. Tony Leek Says:

    Bit late to the party I know but, having seen Hedda last night on live transmission, how can you say that all give “coolly understated” performances? Whilst generally successful, the volume level is too high too soon which leaves the actors nowhere to go later. In particular, Rafe Spaull’s Brack is wholly without nuance and is one note shouty from beginning to end. He can’t be that bad an actor, so presumably Ivo is to blame for that. TickTone

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      How odd. Perhaps they’ve become more shouty as he run has progressed? Maybe they’re sick of the Scandi-chic…

      • tony leek Says:

        Frankly, I did not rule that out, or that Rafe had “live transmission” nerves. It’d be great (for me) if you were to see a recording and comment – but I suspect a sighting of more than one Hedda Gabler every five years or so is more than even the most assiduous of reviewers could stand. TickTone

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