Hedda Gabler (2017/18 Tour) Theatre Review

After its triumph at the National Theatre, Patrick Maber’s version of Hedda Gabler, directed by Ivo Van Hove has been out on tour since October 2017. It’s always a thrill to see ATG programming more plays in its regional theatres, particularly at Milton Keynes, even if the huge auditorium is a difficult fill. A shame then that the bad weather probably stopped a few audience members from attending what was an intriguing and enjoyably tense evening of theatre this week.

Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is often proclaimed as “the female Hamlet” so it is interesting that Ibsen’s preliminary notes for the play (here listed in the programme) make multiple references to a lack of purpose, and the farcical nature of life plaguing Hedda, rather than the revenge and melancholy of Hamlet. And indeed, a ‘classic’ re-telling this is not. Whilst purists might turn their noses up at the unidentifiable modern setting, the sharp contemporary turn of phrase and an, at times, purposefully flat delivery of the text, it is interesting to note that these stylistic choices have left us with some ‘open space’ in which to explore Hedda’s inner journey. In true Van Hove style this is an extraordinarily symbolic piece – Hedda flings flowers around the empty apartment and staples them to the walls, there are dreamlike sequences to Joni Mitchell and Jeff Buckley, and the whole thing is topped off with an uncomfortably oppressive image that burns long after the piece.

The design from Jan Versweyveld adds to this layered approach. The plain, white shell of a cavernous, empty home welcomes the newly married Hedda (Lizzy Watts) and her academic husband Tesman (Abhin Galeya) home from a lengthy honeymoon. Although all is not as it seems for the ‘happy’ couple, as figures from their past return into their lives, arousing old secrets and even older jealousies. The vast, open space of the undecorated room slowly becomes oppressive, as Hedda and those around her pinball from one wall to another. The lighting too is exceptional. Never have blinds been so relevant or beautiful. Hedda is teased with soft light, tortured by the glare of the sun, and finally, plunged into darkness.

The cast work well with some challenging material, but this production really is a vehicle for the magnificent Lizzy Watts. Hedda’s lack of purpose, her furious boredom and her absolute horror at potential motherhood, all seem to steer her jealous and terrible actions. Her only joy seems to be in manipulating others, and yet Watts somehow manages to make us like Hedda, even sympathise with her. We laugh at her acerbic comments about her ‘boring’ husband. We squirm along with her as her husband, his aunt and her ex-lovers all touch, grab and grope her body. It makes the last moments of the blackmailing Judge Brack (a menacing Adam Best) looming over her twisted frame even more horrible. There is also much needed jubilant energy from Galeya as Tesman, and a delightfully delicate performance from Annabel Bates as Mrs Elvsted, which help to add a little more pace to proceedings.

Whilst some of the poetry of Ibsen is lost in this version, it lays bare many of the themes Ibsen was interested in exploring. Whilst it may not be to everyone’s taste, I found it to be a thoroughly thrilling piece of drama. A beautifully-ugly production. Just like Hedda herself…

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