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  • Chris ORourke

Hedda Gabler

Annabel Bates (Mrs Elvsted) and Lizzy Watts (Hedda) in Hedda Gabler. Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg


All About Hedda

In Patrick Marber’s richly textured new version of Henrik Ibsen’s classic “Hedda Gabler,” a laconic, yet eternally restless Hedda is ever ready for her close up. Diva and director of her own self designed dramas, there may be love, death, power, and ennui at play, but it’s all about Hedda. Ever the constant performer, replete with her sombre soundtrack and signature tunes, Hedda is the bored belle trapped in her own boring ball. First produced in 1891, Marber’s reimagined tale might be reset in the present, but it’s a tale that proves to be timeless. Or rather, Hedda does. Beautifully reimagined and impeccably performed, “Hedda Gabler” deals in a strange kind of magic, all wrapped up in a design to die for.

In Marber’s updated version, the recently married Hedda finds life becoming a permanent pit stop on a journey that’s going nowhere. Entombed within her ideal new apartment, with her ideal new husband, Tesman, ghosts from the past prove far more fascinating than any future he might possibly offer her. The perpetual student playing at being a professor, Tesman reads but never writes. Unlike his old friend, Lovborg, a recovering alcoholic with a streak of brilliance, and the object of desire for Thea Elvsted, a friend of Hedda’s from her schooldays. In a world of power and power plays, acting and academia, death and desire, and whatever passes for love, the soul might yet yearn for what the heart and mind don’t understand. Yet its freedom might only be found in playing the greatest scene of all, finding release when truth and performance collide.

Richard Pyros (Lovborg) and Lizzy Watts (Hedda Gabler) in Hedda Gabler. Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg.

If Marber’s script sufficiently deviates from Ibsen’s original to craft something memorably its own, it also remains true to much of the original’s text and spirit. As with the eponymous Hedda, Marber’s more direct version is deeply complex, weaving a multitude of thematic strands into something as taut and durable as a steel cable, capable of carrying incredible weight, yet also feeling heavy at times. For also like Hedda, Marber’s script can strain at its own moorings and doesn’t always slip free, such as a prolonged and obvious metaphor of a lost child that’s over sold and over played, causing pace to lag in places. Yet, ultimately, it really is all about Hedda, and Marber’s Hedda is wonderfully more complex than a mere psychological or character study, offering a myriad of intriguing new interpretive possibilities, courtesy of an ever-present maid, Berte.

Set and lighting designer, Jan Versweyveld, costume designer, An D’Huys, and sound designer, Tom Gibbons, craft a formidable aesthetic of stark simplicity, layered with solemn grey tones and a sombre soundscape. A look, sound, and feel that proves supremely effective, hinting heavily of Scandinavian noir. The sense of containment within a cage, or a mausoleum with no exits, is beautifully rendered by Versweyveld’s use of light, reinforced by cast members entering and exiting from the auditorium. Which is as it should be, for the enclosed stage, both her tomb and personal performative space, belongs to Hedda and Hedda alone. All that is exists solely from her perspective. All the stage is her world. A world where she poses, front and centre, surrounded by faded bouquets littering old, abandoned paint cans, where lights, sound, and music are ever ready to reflect whatever mood Hedda feels ready to project or perform next.

Lizzy Watts (Hedda Gabler) in Hedda Gabler. Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Throughout, director Ivo van Hove beautifully captures a sense of caged energy, prowling and pressing against the walls, seeking release, the claustrophobia almost palpable. A space in which Madlena Nedeva as the somewhat mysterious maid, Berte, serves as something as near to ballast as is possible. Adam Best as the devious and opportunistic Brack, Richard Pyros as the conflicted Lovborg, and Abhin Galeya as a tedious Tesman, are supremely engaging, as is Christine Kavanagh as Aunt Juliana. Weak, strong, self-willed yet co-dependent, Annabel Gates is staggeringly impressive as the contradictory Thea Elvsted. Yet these are but bodies crushing the confined space that is Hedda’s universe, closing in on her in ever decreasing circles, suffocating her irrepressible desire to feel powerful, free, and alive. All superbly realised by a magnetic Lizzy Watts, whose performance is simply out of this world, delivering one of the most memorable and compelling Hedda’s you’re likely to see for some time.

“Hedda Gabler” is a refreshing and timely reminder that complex, contradictory characters can be far more compelling when not reduced to, or solely in service of, the rational, psychological, or political. Sexy, smart, with superb design and a superlative Hedda, “Hedda Gabler” may not translate perfectly to the 21st century, but Watts’s outstanding performance most certainly does. In the end you might think you know Hedda better, but you may well find you understand her even less. For in “Hedda Gabler” there are still no easy answers. Her performance continues. Her mystery remains and deepens. And thank God for that.

“Hedda Gabler” by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Patrick Marber, produced by The National Theatre (London), and directed by Ivo van Hove, runs at The Gaiety Theatre until March 10th

For more information, visit The Gaiety Theatre or The National Theatre

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