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Hedda Gabler- theatre review and then some opposing thoughts by the same writer

Hedda is down, but Ibsen is up in this crystalline razor sharp new translation of the playwright’s supposedly realist play by Patrick Marber and directed by Ivo van Hove. The Belgian director and his years long collaborator designer Jan Versweyveld have removed every inch of realistic detail that made Ibsen famous so that Versweyveld’s light cuts as easily across the bare stage as Marber’s parred back text cuts the air with all the ferocity of a pistol shot.
Watching, it feels like a finely distilled piece of art that is tighter than a drum that has been to drum tightening academy. You know it because there is not a misspent stare or subdued drum beat from sound designer Tom Gibbons out of place.
Whilst being a photographer of the every day realism that Ibsen observed around him, the playwright was aiming for a picture of internal despair with Hedda Gabler, to show the inability of a woman trapped in her marriage to act and for a feel that should transcend naturalism. Marber gets it. There’s no room for misconception in his words though there is plenty of ambiguity, a fine line that is difficult to tread. It means that every inch, every moment of Hedda’s internal agonies are understood. When she plays with the blinds on her sliding patio whose vertical rails are like the bars on the window of a prison cell, we understand how she holds the key to her own fate as tightly as both her husband Tesman and friend Judge Brack hold on to her as if she were a possession. Every move, from Hedda’s unconscious kneeling on the floor as she confesses to the morbidity of her marriage to her aiming her gun ad hoc over the heads of the audience amplifies and sometimes contradicts what Marber’s text is saying. Here is a woman who wants to fly, but does not know how. Yet, does she want to fly?
Understanding of Ruth Wilson’s Hedda slips through your fingers as easily as the silk negligee she wears for almost the entire production. Her relationship with her just as fiery and as complex husband Tesman (Kyle Soller brings a refreshing bite to him) is at odds in love yet becomes whole when the two are aggressive with each other. It is as if this is the only way they can work. But how Hedda plays games with Sinéad Matthews’ Mrs. Elvsted whose sweet confection like costume indicates her nature and whose covetous relationship with Lovborg (studious and conflicted Chukwudi Iwuji) Tesman’s academic competitor, is his downfall.
How Hedda is exultant, punching the air like a vicious child when she thinks she has gained the power over Lovborg she so craves and has set him on the path to her own particular kind of freedom. How small and vulnerable she becomes when her delusion is revealed by cruel, suave Brack (a chameleon like Rafe Spall).
Like a sniffing, but off the scent hound, Kate Duchêne’s Aunt Juliana paces the stage unaware of the tragedy unfolding around her. Éva Magyar’s maid Berte is reinvented as an accomplice to Hedda, she’s Hedda’s shadow and haunts the stage with a classic Nordic visage. At various points the actors sit and watch each other as if watching an exhibition. We start to wonder about the fourth wall.
Moments of lush introspection come between the scenes where Joni Mitchell’s Blue hangs like clothes on Hedda’s skeletal hunched shoulders as she despairs. The play may begin slowly, but its pace escalates, its grip takes you by the throat when it starts cutting to the chase. Echoing the end of Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge red liquid heralds the beginning of Hedda’s demise. It is a relief, but at the play’s close there’s a strange lack of finality and this is the lovely modern twist, saves the play from being a little romantic and is the newness that is brought to Ibsen in a long essay that is about death and suicide and freedom and power. Ivo van Hove does something genius with Hedda and as Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind” plays out the audience there is a feeling of redemption and catharsis. It lets out an ambiguous cry, this production. And one that is not wholly despairing.
Hedda Gabler is on at the National Theatre until 21st March, it will be broadcast live by NT Live on 9 March 2017.
first published in The London Economic


some further notes as for each and every reaction there exists its opposite

So here are some opposing thoughts to my review above:

The feeling that staging HG via a pros stage inhibits Ivo van Hove. I found myself comparing the show with his A View From The Bridge. Why did it not hit me as much? It's not just the writing or  Miller's poetry and inclusion of the narrator (which anyway IVH tries here via the maid)

Part of the reason is that it is staged head on

We don't, most of the time, interact with each other merely head on. Our view of others in real life is more 4 D than this. Get rid of all pros stages unless they are for a reason. AVFTB worked very well at the YV because it was in the thrust and the space is very intimate. Of course, a thrust is like a bridge also. But the staging here had no real metaphor as such. I.e its architectural space. If one cannot change one's looking direction a little bit, the brain gets fatigued. Peter Brook is right. Need to cleanse the brain. Thrust can do this.

(Personal opinion: I just hate pros stages. They encourage a "them and us" situation between audience and actors, they don't build communities between audience's either. Part of the deal of any good theatre show is seeing how others react. Understanding the general nature of the IQ of an audience and how it rises when watching a show also. A pros makes it much harder to understand this. Or feel it.)

Kept wanting the show to break out actually. To break away from what could be seen as stereotypes. Or archetypes for example. Hedda has to throw flowers. Of course she does. Cos flowers are effeminate etc, cos a woman would throw them. Of course, they are a present from the Aunt, but why couldn't she eat them? Or something. Why couldn't the flowers be pottery and why could they not be smashed? Because a smash is too ecstatic? Although H does staple them to the wall, and this has metaphorical meaning.. Hedda always did and behaved in exactly the way I would expect now. Why? Comparing it with the production back in 2005(?) that was stuffy, cold, authoritarian. HG is not sure here of course. She is vulnerable and uncertain. But she still makes grand gestures in the exact way we expect "heroines" of the stage to make. We need to change the record. 

AVFTB was HOT. Hot and sweaty and erotic although slightly, slightly flawed. Performances were uneven. But it didn't matter, these things never matter when there is more genius or synthesis of ideas (i.e the Faure that accompanied the show and helped it transcend). It is not the writing that is better or that the hot American poetry excited IVH more (or is it?) But that something about Eddie's break down, his madness, is more attractive. Not sexually attractive but warm and full of life, life affirming even in death. Why? And oh SO WHY? are women who break down onstage or are losing it etc portrayed as cold and hard and always (think the many versions of Ophelia) nearly always victims whose deaths are somehow less regal and less powerful and weak.  It is because no one loves them? Are they, are the writers, are the creatives, are audiences still bound by gender expectations? And why is it that the general aesthetic accompanying such characters on stage are cold and icy?   Think Yerma. Exactly the same. 

Why oh why are women ALWAYS dressed the same when they are breaking down? Is it because traditionally our "heroines" are historical and middle class and so dressed in a certain way? Some men get off on an attractive seductive woman having a break down. But HG was updated to at least modern times- may be not the 21st Century but certainly the 20th. Confusion. Just why are these kinds of women i.e the break down types dressed to always attract men always showing a lot of leg?  Is it really their characters? i.e again think Yerma.  Or are they still, products of patriarchy? Do the creatives MEAN to say this? Do the audience work this out?

But I have to admit I am tired of seeing these archetypes that are now stereotypes.

Someone wrote in a review that Hedda should get a job. This is to miss the point. Hedda does not want a job. If she did and got one, there would be no Hedda. There would be no play. Just like there would be no ASCND if Blanche got well and no Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine either. We all know a Hedda who does not want to work and can't find her vacation and so amuses herself with the lives of others. It is a modern malady. 

In this way, Ibsen has written about a universal human being, not just a woman. This does come across most strongly in this play.

Even women write about women in reviews and essays the same way men do. With the most tragic kind of language. I do. It is inherited and no one knows they are doing it. We love a tragic woman, even women. When is how we talk about such women, the words we use to describe them, going to change?

I think this production of HG should be reimagined in the thrust. What happens when the audience are brought closer to the action, when H has to confront her audience. Conversely, as happened in Yerma when BP broke the 4th wall, something connecting could break out, changing the audience's idea and interpretation of Hedda.













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