Hedda Gabler review – Ruth Wilson lets loose Ibsen's demons

Lyttelton, London
Ruth Wilson superbly conveys the desolation of Ibsen’s ahead-of-her-time aesthete in Ivo van Hove’s invigorating modern-dress version

The extraordinary Ruth Wilson stars in Ivo van Hove’s modern-dress production of Ibsen’s classic. After so many years of seeing Heddas in whalebone corsets, there is an inevitable frisson about the sight of Wilson roaming a vast, bare-walled room clad in little more than a Freudian slip. Using a brisk, cobweb-free, new version by Patrick Marber, Van Hove also presents us with a set of recognisable human beings. But, much as I admired the production, I found myself drawing up a mental balance-sheet recording its pluses and minuses.

On the debit side is the fact that Ibsen deliberately called the play Hedda Gabler: his point was that Hedda was more her father’s daughter than her husband’s wife. Here, however, there is little sense that this moody, modern Hedda is of aristocratic lineage.

Updating also obscures the fact that Ibsen was writing at a historic turning point in women’s lives. As Elaine Showalter brilliantly argued in a review of two 1996 productions, Hedda is a female aesthete who is an anomaly in the 1890s world of the New Woman embodied by the more courageous Mrs Elvsted. Van Hove’s production also sometimes makes Ibsen’s subtext overexplicit: you see this when Judge Brack emphasises his intended hold over Hedda by pinning her to a wall or dousing her in a blood-like liquid.

Rafe Spall, Chukwudi Iwuji, Ruth Wilson and Kyle Soller
Bacchic spirit … from left, Rafe Spall, Chukwudi Iwuji, Ruth Wilson and Kyle Soller. Photograph: Jan Versweyveld

But, in the end, the credits outweigh the debits. Wilson is especially good at conveying the desolation of a Hedda confined in a meaningless marriage. She is first seen slumped in her dressing gown over a piano. Even the way she restlessly fidgets with the blinds – the show is beautifully lit as well as designed by Jan Versweyveld – becomes a token of her despair. In one of the evening’s best touches, Wilson squats on the floor with Brack, and with blank-eyed resignation recalls the process that led inexorably to her marriage. Yet Wilson also lets us see there is a demonic side to Hedda that she is normally too inhibited to express: left alone, she hurls the flowers marking her homecoming all over the floor and goes into a wild, Bacchic dance before burning Lovborg’s manuscript. Wilson’s fine Hedda possesses a mad spirit lurking inside the body of a social conservative.

It is equally good to see her husband, Tesman, played not as some academic fossil but as a young, vibrant figure. In Kyle Soller’s performance, he is explicitly American. But what really matters is Soller’s shameless delight in enjoying “privileged access” to his wife’s body, his horror at his financial overcommitment and his rage at Hedda for questioning his dedication to reconstructing Lovborg’s manuscript. Soller gives us a fiercely impassioned Tesman who finds a true soulmate in Sinéad Matthews’s determined Mrs Elvsted: Van Hove and Marber subtly suggest their final literary collaboration is based on a strong earlier attachment.

There is less subtlety in the brutally domineering tactics of Judge Brack, but Rafe Spall executes the idea well, and Chukwudi Iwuji has just the right Byronic fervour as Lovborg.

The most puzzling figure is the black-clad maid, Berte (Éva Magyar), who is on stage throughout and who sometimes resembles Rebecca’s Mrs Danvers in her fixation with Hedda and at others seems to embody her guilty conscience. But, whatever questions this production raises, it forces us to see Ibsen’s masterpiece with fresh eyes and to recognise that, even in the age of instant divorce, there are still modern Heddas helplessly trapped in loveless bondage.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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