U.K. Review: "Hedda Gabler" at the Grand Opera House York

Adam Bruce

  • United Kingdom Critic

The works of Henrik Ibsen have a resounding timelessness to them, with revivals and adaptations never going out of fashion. This is especially the case when adaptations stay true to the narratives and do not lose sight of the text’s original meanings. Hedda Gabler is one of Ibsen’s greatest and most powerful pieces, and when I saw it was in the hands of director Ivo van Hove and writer Patrick Marber at the end of 2016, I couldn’t wait to see the result that the two would produce. Since I didn’t get to see the original production at its premiere, I was delighted when this new national tour pulled into the Grand Opera House in York.

In case you’re not already familiar with it, Hedda Gabler brings us to the world of Hedda Tesman (Lizzy Watts), who’s just been married and is bored of the stifling world her academic husband Jorgen (Abhin Galeya) perpetuates. Just when she’s had enough of dealing with visitors, finding ways of dangerously entertaining herself with her deceased father’s pistols and flirting with Judge Brack (Adam Best), an old flame from her past, Lovborg (Richard Pyros), comes back into her life – and Hedda soon has her wish for a more fulfilled existence granted, with devastating consequences.

What follows is certainly one of the most intense and gripping pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time. Ivo van Hove’s directorial vision takes the foundations of Ibsen’s drama and develops it into a cinematic, coldly contemplative, sometimes even darkly funny meditation on domesticity and the desire for personal fulfilment. Hove’s command of atmospheres and general performative tones and temperatures pulsates throughout every aspect of the piece, ultimately transcending the temporal distance and any subsequent limitations between our time and the time of the original text.

The simultaneous enjoyable chill and delight that comes from watching this piece unfold primarily emanates from the ensemble of actors, all of whom bring a gravitas that changes the dynamic of the stage space to create a malleable and highly charged performance environment. This environment beautifully reflects the play-world depicted in Marber’s adaptation, and stunningly clear cut characters emerge.  To name a couple: Watts’ Hedda is fiery, charged, often slightly childlike, longing to escape from domestic suffocation; Best’s Brack is volatile and darkly encouraging of Hedda’s passion for a life outside of her cold grey walls, pushing her to the edge. The company create characters that truly send sparks off of one another as they quietly hurtle towards the play’s resolution.

Underneath their characters, you can see a real sense of calm in these actors as they unravel Ibsen’s story. This calm, considered nature, courtesy of the meticulousness that comes with Hove’s directorial vision, is also present in the play’s gorgeous scenography. Jan Versweyveld’s set and lighting design firmly encompasses the themes within the text concretely enables them to resonate even further. The cinematic style of the lighting design focuses the action when required, and within the confines of the minimalistic, smothering modernity of the Tesmans’ home, the action and emotion is heightened and amplified.

This production of Hedda Gabler is truly unmissable theatre. The presence of economical, careful direction is incredibly refreshing, and as a result, plenty of space is given to Ibsen’s text to breathe. There is no additional clutter stifling Hove’s piece whatsoever, and the chilling momentum that builds as a result is powerful and highly enjoyable to watch. This production is a true testament to a stunning creative collaboration between everyone involved, and is nothing short of a true theatrical and cultural triumph.

Hedda Gabler is currently on tour. For tickets, please visit https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/hedda-gabler-on-tour