Hedda Gabler, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Patrick Marber and directed by Ivo van Hove; The Lowry, 31 October 2017.
Productions of Ibsen often recall the paintings of the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi. These mysterious paintings depict uncanny, bourgeois interiors, white panelled walls, isolated items of furniture that inhabit the paintings with the presence of human subjects, pianos, light pouring through windows with no natural source, no exteriors, women with their back to the viewer, isolated, with no human connection to the interiors in which they have been confined by propriety, melancholy. Ivo van Hove’s thrilling production on Hedda Gabler, on tour from the National Theatre at the Lowry, recalls this heritage but draws out much of its urgent, contemporary resonance without sacrificing its nineteenth-century modernity in a desperate attempt to make the play ‘relevant’. Rather, the production stresses a continuity between then and now; so much of what is still disturbing about our modernity, in Hedda Gabler the interactions between gender oppression and the ruthless exercise of power by a powerful bourgeois class, and problems of the fulfilling realisation of subjectivity in a society that is actively constructed to constrict human flourishing in order to maintain rigid hierarchies of power, belong to both Ibsen’s world and our own.
Set designer Jan Versweyveld recalls the heritage of Hammershøi: towering white walls, sharp light from a window which does not even attempt to suggest the fiction of an exterior, one or two items of furniture, and in the centre a piano, its exterior removed to reveal the workings within. This apartment, the residence of the academic, Tesman, and his new wife, the titular Hedda, has been given a yuppie-ish twist. There is a stainless steel fireplace, a video intercom to open the door, a fire extinguisher has become an architectural feature. And at the centre of it, as at the centre of the play, Hedda Gabler is slumped over this rent and exposed piano. The whole play revolves around her, and it must be a thrilling part to play. Tesman and Hedda have returned from their honeymoon, during which Tesman has been researching his new book, a dull treatise on medieval Europe. Also recently returned to the city is Lovborg, a writer, an old friend of Tesman, a former lover of Hedda, who has recovered from alcoholism and has recently published a feted collection of essays on contemporary culture. He is followed by Mrs Elvsted, his married lover and a former school mate of Hedda, who is concerned the city will draw him back to his addiction and dissipation. Finally, there is Brack, a bachelor judge and ruthless manipulator, and Juliana, Tesman’s aunt who looks after an unseen, terminally ill relative. Around this group’s comings and goings, drama plays out.
Hedda is bored, mortally bored. She’s stifled by the opportunities available to her. Tesman loves her but she never loved him; his repeated allusions to her pregnancy actively repulse her. The physicality of Lizzy Watts’s performance as Hedda is particularly thrilling here: she paces, she is all limbs constrained then splayed in fury, she is louche and bored, then terrifyingly violent, abject victim and aggressive perpetrator. In one thrilling scene she stands by the window and yanks the blinds open and closed, bathing and shuttering the set in jaundiced yellow light as Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ incongruously plays over the scene change. Tour de force is no exaggeration here, and alongside Watts’s performance, the other leads fade into insignificance, not because of any failing of their own, but because Watts is just so so good. This physicality is particularly strong in capturing Hedda’s manic depression, slumped over the piano and suddenly bursting into life with the cruellest bitterest funny joke at the expense of her husband, twisting the hair of Mrs Elvsted as she reprises the role of school bully before sitting on the floor with her to hear about her affair like a conspiratorial schoolgirl. Hedda is not just stifled victim of gender roles here but the possessor of a shocking, cruel, insatiable will to power. She remorselessly pursues Lovborg with an alcoholic drink, all but forcing him to break his abstinence, and she does this out of a malice which is clear but never explicitly stated to the audience but seems to be motivated by jealousy for Lovborg and Mrs Elvsted’s relationship. And yet, Hedda also seems to believe that her cruelty to Lovborg and Mrs Elvsted is invoking some sort of authenticity in them in contrast to her own, inauthentic life. There is pathos when Hedda discovers, unsurprisingly, that the drunken Lovborg did not come home ‘with vine leaves in his hair’; she seems crushed as if all her hopes rested on it. Her final unravelling comes when she discovers that Lovborg has botched the suicide that she has encouraged him to commit, putting the gun into his hand herself.
This version of the play is admirably rendered in clear prose by Patrick Marber, who has resisted the temptation to pepper his script with the slang and swear words as desperate signifiers of the contemporary, whilst still offering a thoroughgoing modernisation. It attributes Hedda’s inability to imagine a meaningful life outside her own, whilst being acutely aware of her stifled oppression, both to her class position and her place is a system of gender oppression. Mercifully, Marber has minimised the references to Hedda’s father. Whereas for Ibsen, Hedda’s surname linked her to her father rather than her husband, here it stands for an assertion of her independence which she ultimately fails to negotiate. We are spared the only dated aspect of Ibsen’s work, a recourse to crudely drawn Freudian daddy issues to explain Hedda’s behaviour. On the one hand, Hedda seems too unimaginative (or a victim of her own privileged class position) to imagine a fulfilling life outside her own. She is obsessed with money and becomes angry at the thought of Tesman failing to gain his professorship because it would disappoint her ability to live on a grand scale; at one point she laments the fact that Tesman is too weak to become a politician, and Abhin Galeya as Tesman is indeed convincingly pathetic, pottering around the stage in slippers for most of the performance. At the side of the stage, throughout, sits Berte (Madlena Nedeva), the maid, whose silent presence invokes the world of a different class experience that Hedda arrogantly fails, or refuses, to notice.
On the other hand though, Hedda is so cruelly abused by the men around her that it is no wonder that she is so stifled and full of rage. Brack, (Adam Best), the judge, the law and establishment, embodies all the boastful, swaggering, secure power that Hedda’s will to power cannot compete with. His self-confident embodiment of space, his loud voice, his red face, could belong to any of the men in the news today who have used their position to sexually harass women. Within the culture that Hedda lives in, there is no clear outlet to even begin challenging this, except for an incoherent rage at the world around her, whose main victims, Lovborg and Mrs Elvsted are, in the world of the play, the most innocent, but also the most intellectually fulfilled. Until Hedda encourages Lovborg back to drink, they seem to be working in a relatively equal intellectual partnership. Even seemingly mild-manned Tesman revels in his legal access to his wife’s body, running his hands along her belly, thighs and hips in front of guests, stressing her pregnancy, oblivious to Hedda’s feelings about it.
These twin vectors come together in the most brutal scene in the play, where Brack spits red liquid all over Hedda’s white slip as he blackmails her into sex with the knowledge that she supplied the gun that Lovborg died by. Sexual violence here contains the visual echo of Lovborg’s bloody, messy death that Hedda had put such faith in the authenticity of. I was slightly discomforted by the politics of drawing these two strands together in such a violent scene, lest it imply that the violence of Hedda’s internalised class prejudices are in some way equivalent to the sexual abuse inflicted on her by Brack, but this scene is also ambiguous whilst being explicit and spectators must make up their own mind. Unlike Nora in A Doll’s House, there is no line of flight for Hedda, straight out the front door and away from bourgeois respectability. Rather, the convulsions of her suicide, again rendered in horrifying physicality by Watts, can only echo the convulsions of her living body against the apartment she has been entombed in.