From the first unnerving, eerie notes echoing through the house from a battered old on-stage piano, the National Theatre’s Hedda Gabler (a new version after the classic by Henrik Ibsen) draws its audience into a decidedly uncomfortable exploration of some of the more dramatic flaws in the human psyche.
After a somewhat slow and uncertain first few minutes of dialogue, the play manages to find the accelerator, and soon proceeds to trap its audience in a mercilessly bright set of headlights as the protagonist reveals her darkly complicated nature. Hedda (Ruth Wilson) and her new husband, Tesman (Kyle Soller), have returned home after an extended honeymoon, and one half of the happy couple isn’t very happy at all. After the afore-mentioned oddly stinted exchange between Tesman’s Aunt Juliana (Kate Duchêne) and the housemaid Berte (Éva Magyar), performed while nervously anticipating the honeymooners’ return, the fireworks start when Hedda, who has up to now been slouched listlessly over the keys of the upright piano centre-stage, enters the conversation by bitingly declaring how ‘enchanting’ it is to see her husband’s aunt ‘so early’. The line, delivered to great laughter, is uttered so as to make it clear that any hour would be too early for Hedda to have to pretend to be nice to her dull husband’s doting aunt.
So begins our acquaintance with a character who is as manipulative and mean as she is insecure and child-like. When the play was first performed in the 1890s, European audiences and reviewers alike didn’t quite know what to make of the unlovable, un-meek Hedda and her cynical machinations. The new National Theatre production, transposed to a contemporary setting by Patrick Marber and vividly realised by Tony Award-winning director Ivo van Hove, brings Ibsen’s text to a modern audience more familiar with complex female characters, and does so by subtly implying that all the action’s happening in the protagonist’s mind. The housemaid transforms into a nurse who guards the door to the asylum and thus never leaves the stage, and inmate Hedda isn’t allowed access to a mobile phone —all textual correspondence happens via old-fashioned letters. Hedda also never leaves the stage, which strongly resembles a cell thanks to its concrete walls and the vertical shadows cast by blinds covering the only window.
The highly effective lighting and set design deserve special mention. As blinds are drawn and windows nailed shut, we are offered a glimpse into Hedda’s own darkening interior world. The protagonist’s barren void of a soul is also mirrored in the bareness of the set, which resembles a cross between a run-down flower shop and an abandoned warehouse. The upright piano, which has been stripped of its upper panel to reveal hammers and strings, recalls the opening of a human chest for the purpose of examining a patient’s vital organs.
The production boasts some spectacular performances. Wilson effortlessly manages to portray Hedda as both the bored sophisticate who languishes in her self-inflicted unhappiness and the insecure daddy’s girl who can’t help wanting to know whether her old lover still thinks of her. A few knowing looks to the audience serve to confirm that we are very much here to share in Hedda’s exasperation at the inferior intellects around her.
Rafe Spall brilliantly turns his Judge Brack into a terrifyingly malignant presence constantly lurking on Hedda’s shoulder, egging her on in her unrelenting pursuit of power. As Brack rapidly takes on an even more menacing role, the same three piano chords are played repeatedly, and the audience’s sense of unease builds. Sinéad Matthews delivers Mrs Elvsted’s heartbreaking lines about her loveless marriage most deftly, making the audience laugh uncomfortably as they take in the reality of her unenviable situation. Hedda’s old flame Lovborg is convincingly portrayed as an intellectually gifted, if tragically weak-willed, academic by Chukwudi Iwuji.
Like the fire set in a centre-stage grate in the floor, Hedda only knows how to devour those around her. Towards the end of the play, Tesman declares that there is ‘no logical reason’ for Hedda’s evil deeds. To this, the audience might respond by asking how much logical behaviour one could possibly expect from a character who, early in the play, seems to display serious jealousy when her husband expresses his love for a favourite old pair of slippers. National Theatre’s Hedda Gabler is the kind of production that lingers in the memory of its audience long after the final bows have been taken. By compelling its audience to examine the exposed hammers and strings of Hedda’s interior, the play might ask more questions than it answers. Of course, that’s exactly what makes the whole thing so memorable and unsettling, and one can only hope that screening venues will overflow with theatre-lovers eager to witness Ibsen’s masterwork performed so expertly.
Make a date to see NTLive’s Hedda Gabler at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront between 1 and 6 April. Book your tickets at sterkinekor.co.za. If you miss the Nouveau screenings, you also have an opportunity on 30 April to see this NTLive offering at the Fugard Theatre, with tickets available at Computicket.