UK Review: 'Hedda Gabler' – National Theatre Touring Production.

Lewis Baird

  • OnStage United Kingdom Critic

It’s been while since I have seen a play. Therefore I jumped at the chance to see The National Theatre and Ivo Van Hove's  contemporized production of Henrik Ibsen’s classic, Hedda Gabler. I really didn’t know what to expect, I hadn't read the original script and also had heard mixed reviews, however, I went in with an open mind. 

In brief, the production surrounds Hedda and her husband, Tesman, settling into their new lives together. When an old acquaintance, Mrs Elvsted, appears, requesting the newly weds to appease and welcome, the once reckless, Lovborg back into town as he has managed to seemingly regain control of his life.  Things develop as family, friends and possibly enemies gather together within Hedda and Tesman's household. Lets just say things take rather a turn for the worst.  

The large, open, modern set was very eye catching at first, with minimal props and furniture, I liked the simplicity of it. As we entered, Hedda was on stage playing piano, with Berta downstage left, observing. This created the appropriate atmosphere, it made the audience almost unsettled and prepared us for the production.  

The one thing you notice about this production is that it is definitely stylized, there are moments which look visually stunning but seem disconnected from the subtext and the piece it’s self. There are moments music filled the theatre and it seemed that Hedda was in a dream like state dancing or making smooth, slow movements. At points you miss what that is supposed to conotate and how it is relevant to the storyline. 

One thing that feels natural is the humour within this production, sarcasm is overused in modern society and it feels like at some points it is unneeded. Within this production some of the sarcasm was just hilarious and nailed perfectly. Most of it said by Hedda, bitching about her husband.    

There is an issue with climactic build and flow within this production, it just feels like the tempo is all over the place. At one point Hedda decides to tear apart flowers and staple them to the walls because she doesn't get her own way, there was no real build in rage for that to happen, it just happened. It felt odd and unnecessary. She then pulls out a gun and starts shooting at Brack (Tesman's friend) as he approaches their property. Where is the need? She isn't that much of a psycho bitch, or if she is there was not an accurate portrayal, I believe it was just the direction as it just felt totally out of sync. 

There was many moments where the characters flowed well together for instance anyone interacting with Hedda, showed an accurate portrayal in a strained relationship with the character. However there was one scene where Tesman and Hedda were sitting on the sofa, facing the opposite wall and it was as if they were reading the dialogue from cue cards, I get that’s all part of the stylisation of the piece but it didn't seem to bring anything to it, it dropped the energy and made the dialogue seem uninteresting. 

Lizzy Watts gave a brilliant contemporary portrayal of Hedda Gabler, she is second to take the role in this production. British TV/film actress, Ruth Wilson, previously took on the role at the National during it’s London run. However, Lizzy makes Hedda seem human, the portrayal is believable, it seems natural and definitely Lizzy is worthy of this role and nails it. I feel like the out of tempo parts of the production flawed her portrayal within these sections, however, that’s a creative decision and not Lizzy's fault. She brings life and colour into a character which isn’t necessarily interesting character on paper.  

Abhin Galeya plays Tesman, Hedda's husband who is trying to make the most out of his life. Abhin gives a very energetic and natural portrayal of Tesman. I would say that his version of this character was definitely contemporary and fitted in with Ivo Van Hove’s vision. 

Richard Pyros portrays Lovborg in a way which I feel was a classic style rather contemporizing the performance to fit in with basing the piece within modern society. There is a monologue which was regarding an event that occurred while Lovborg joined Tesman and Brack on an evening out. The monologue seemed like almost a Shakespearean performance, it seemed too dramatic for the context, especially if the play is based within the present, it seemed like an unrealistic reaction to have. Understandably this could be because of the dialogue and/or the direction that Richard has been given. I still enjoyed moments with this character he was interesting, as there was lots of colour, there was definite depth there, however, it seemed like this character was disconnected to the style of the re-worked play.  

Brack is played by Adam Best, the performance is natural, with an interesting character journey seen throughout the performance. Only issue with Adam's performance was diction and clarity, I failed to pick up some lines due to him being fast paced and diction dropping at points.

However, overall, this was a very interesting portrayal which fitted in well within the piece.  
Annabel Bates as Mrs Elvsted was refreshing and a very believable portrayal of a woman struggling through life. There was an overreaction after Lovborg’s monologue which was the only fault with Annabel's portrayal. Her performance matched the contemporized environment supplied by the set and dialogue, it felt modern.  

The same can be said for Christine Kavanagh as Aunt Juliana and Madlena Nedeva as Berte, both these woman portrayed characters which were believable to the audience and also managed to blend into the direction style. Berta had an interesting role observing the events occurring on stage and answering the door for Hedda, it was a peculiar role however Madlena did not break character and managed to convey a character who was unbiased to any of the parties on stage, she was just there to serve Hedda and Tesman. 

This production is definitely stylized to fit in with the contemporary environment. I feel that Ivo Van Hove has went in the correct direction in how to make this play appeal to audiences in today’s society. However, the text that playwright Patrick Marber has scribed may have elements which definitely work as a contemporized performance, but, there are parts of this script which don't translate well and make it difficult for the performers to adapt into the style that Ivo Van Hove is aiming for. I have seen a production similar to this a few years back, which I feel was adapted well. The National Theatre of Scotland adapted The house of Bernarda Alba into a more contemporary production rather than the original which premiered in 1945, they managed to make the text more accessible for audiences and create characters that we can relate to. I feel this is what is missing from this production of Hedda Gabler, there is no connection to most of the characters, which makes it difficult to feel anything for them. The stylized moments of Hedda daydreaming and then music fading in didn't really show how it related to the text, therefore there was no context to why that was happening, visually it was nice but it just seemed like it was added in pointlessly. I feel that Ivo Van Hove definitely has talent but didn’t form this production in a way which fitted the style he was aiming for, as much as he wanted to transpose the text into something appropriate for modern society, it just feels inaccessible for the audience as there’s elements which haven’t been conveyed in a believable manner for a modern play.  

This production has lots of good ideas which are promising, however mixed with ideas which distance the audience, fail to supply context and are separate from the contemporary style the director is aiming for, it makes it difficult for the audience to really connect with the performance. I blame the text personally, as it isn’t a very interesting storyline, it feels like it doesn’t need to be told within this era as it serves as no importance. However, for what the production is, it is visually stunning with some fantastic, believable performances and I definitely see a promising career for Lizzy Watts, her performance was definitely the highlight of the production. I rate this production 3/5 stars. Perhaps I am being generous but I feel the production is worthy of that rating.