Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 23rd January, 2018
The National Theatre’s celebrated production is doing the rounds, and it’s a real treat to have such prestigious work on one’s doorstep. It’s a new version of the Henrik Ibsen masterpiece translating the action into a contemporary setting or, I should say, a kind of timeless setting: the play still has people writing letters to convey important plot points, even though there’s an electronic visitor cam and door buzzer…
Jan Versweyveid’s set is an empty box, ostensibly the yet-to-be-decorated apartment of the newlywed Tesmans. Sparsely furnished, often its only light source is the huge side window. It makes for a stark landscape, suitable for any urbane Nordic noir drama… Hedda’s piano feels out of place – just as she does – and her late father’s brace of pistols, already in their own little display cabinet, lend foreboding. Hedda shoots both them and her mouth off to express her boredom and frustrations. We realise that the apartment is not so much Hedda’s space as her headspace, and the action takes a more symbolic turn. By the final act when the other characters are actively boarding up the only window to the world she has, we are beyond the realms of the literal. Director Ivo van Hove makes bold choices, most of which I approve of, in his presentation of a classic text in a new light. Ibsen’s (via a Patrick Marber reworking) naturalistic chitchat is underscored by a slowly pulsating, throbbing sound that is disconcerting and ominous, coming to a sudden halt at the moments of high drama – it’s its absence we notice, as Hedda is starkly confronted with turns of events.
Lizzy Watts heads a strong ensemble in the title role. Her Hedda is headstrong, coldly sarcastic and manipulative. Having surrendered her own power, her own identity by becoming Mrs Tesman, she seeks to have power over someone else. We enjoy her barbed outbursts and see her cruelty for what it is. What I don’t really get is the source of her dissatisfaction: Abhin Galeya’s Tesman is an affable chap, enthusiastic and lively – yes, Tesman’s area of expertise (medieval trug makers) is esoteric and, frankly, dull as ditch water, but that doesn’t make him a basket case. If, through Hedda’s eyes, we were shown a Tesman more annoying, more gauche, more bookish, we might appreciate more her frustration at having settled for this nerd. Similarly, Richard Pyros’s Lovborg, doesn’t have, for me, the irresistibly sleazy charisma, the sense of brooding, romantic danger, that gets the ladies’ heads turning. Annabel Bates is an appealing Mrs Elvsted – even though she’s already left her unsuitable husband (a course of action Hedda doesn’t even consider) – she’s very much the victim role, an innocent caught in Hedda’s web. Adam Best swaggers and strides as Judge Brack, the male authority role and the villain of the piece. Seen through the prism of Hedda’s mind, the physical liberties he takes with her become symbolic – he wouldn’t get away with such excesses in their literal sense, one would hope. Best is enjoyably hateful, tightening his hold on Hedda – no woman can escape the patriarchy, after all… Christine Kavanagh makes an impression as Tesman’s stylish, interfering Aunt, and Madlena Nedeva’s Berte the maid is a constant presence – a bit like a museum attendant on her seat at the intercom, but also as a kind of familiar to Hedda, silently conjuring props and messages, often unbidden.
It’s a thought-provoking staging that illuminates the Ibsen in such a way we appreciate the richness of the original. For me, the sense of being trapped doesn’t quite come off at the end. Perhaps I would have had the walls closing in, almost imperceptibly; Hedda’s vast empty box of an apartment is simply too vast.
A bold production that engages our intelligence rather than packing an emotional punch, it’s certainly worth seeing and, get this: if you’re one of those young people (26 or even younger) you can see the show on tour for merely a fiver! Definitely worth it. All you have to do is quote IBSEN5 when you book.