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Hedda Gabler review round-up: does Ivo van Hove deliver at the National Theatre?

Ruth Wilson, Rafe Spall and Eva Magyar in Ivo van Hove's production of Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
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After what only feels like minutes since his Off-Broadway production of Lazarus fell to Earth in King’s Cross, the sizzlingly hot Belgian director Ivo van Hove is making his National Theatre debut, taking the reins of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, in a new version by Patrick Marber.

Van Hove’s production stars Ruth Wilson – returning to the stage after Luther and The Affair – as Hedda, a role ubiquitously referred to as the female Hamlet for its tempting combination of psychological complexity and interpretative scope. Alongside her is Rafe Spall, also known for his screen work and for appearing in Nick Payne’s 2012 two-hander, Constellations, at the Royal Court.

Collaborating again with designer Jan Versweyveld, Van Hove has eschewed tradition and placed a sparsely furnished, bare-walled study in minimalism on the Lyttleton stage. Wilson sports nothing but a negligee for most of the evening. Joni Mitchell’s Blue frequently swells through the sound system. The familiar tale of loveless marriage and frustrated housewife this may be, but turn-of-the-century Scandinavia this is not.

But has Van Hove recaptured the thumping power of last year’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic? Or does his Hedda divide critics as Lazarus did? Does Wilson relish her role or wilt before it? Are we looking at a late entry for show of the year or is this 2016’s final flourish?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews…

Hedda Gabler – Ruth Wilson: a Hedda the game

Ingrid Bergman. Maggie Smith. Fiona Shaw. The list of high-profile Heddas is comprehensively intimidating – is Wilson worthy of her place in these luminous ranks?

In a word: yes. In four words: oh my god, yes. The critics can’t take their eyes off her, and that’s not because of her skimpy slip costume, despite the “inevitable frisson” it causes for Michael Billington (the Guardian, ★★★★). “Wilson’s gift is to keep us watching when she is almost a bystander”, writes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★). “We’re all watching Hedda”, echoes Kasia Delgado (Radio Times, ★★★★★), “all the time.”

Her success, it seems, is in her capriciousness. For Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★), Wilson, who “knows how to smile in a dozen different ways”, brings a “thrilling volatility” to the title role. For Billington, Wilson’s Hedda “possesses a mad spirit lurking inside the body of a social conservative”. And for Delgado, she makes for a “chilling anti-hero”, combining a sense of victimhood with “a demonic spirit, a madness and a desire to destroy”.

“She is a terrorist, a revolutionary, a demagogue, a priest, a gun, a bomb”, writes Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★). “She sees the smug, educated, complacent male order, sees that she has no place in it and she destroys. It is horrible and magnificent.”

The praise for Wilson is universal and lengthy, but there is room to squeeze in some applause for her supporting cast. Most admire Kyle Soller’s reinvented Tesman, who is no longer a “desiccated stick” of a husband, according to Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★★), but “an ambitious young lecturer, ready to make his way in the world”. Critics are more divided over Spall’s brutishly manipulative Judge Brack; for Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★), he is “particularly unnerving”, but for Aleks Sierz (the Arts Desk, ★★★), he is “rather miscast”.

Hedda Gabler – can Van Hove do it again?

So Wilson seems to have joined Helen McCrory and Billie Piper in chalking up one of 2016’s most memorable female performances, but what about the production that surrounds her? London has already played host to Van Hove’s epic Shakespearean triple-bill Kings Of War this year, and to the aforementioned Lazarus. How does Hedda Gabler stack up against them?

Pretty well, on the whole, but with a few reservations. His is a drastically new interpretation that burns off the clutter of tradition; witness Versweyveld’s stripped-back set, Tom Gibbons’ insistent sound design, and the repetitive presence of Joni Mitchell. It is, as Claire Allfree (Metro, ★★★★) puts it, “shockingly cold”. Some critics lap all this up with relish. Others view it with a cynically arched eyebrow.

Crompton is in the former category. “This is not an act of historical reconstruction but a radical rethinking so gripping that you find yourself leaning in, listening to nuance, wondering what exactly happens next,” she says. “Every single thing about it is both tough-minded and surprising.”

Jenny Gilbert (Broadway World, ★★★★) agrees, writing that “not an inch of territory escapes van Hove’s microscope” and goes on to call Wilson’s Hedda the perfect “grist to Van Hove’s radicalism”. Cavendish, a confessed agnostic over Van Hove, admits to “have now joined the converts”.

Opposite them sits Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★), who ultimately dismisses an initial “blaze of modishness” as a “wildly self-absorbed” fashion spectacle. He’s joined by Connor Campbell (the Upcoming, ★★★), who finds Van Hove’s production “curiously lacking in intensity” and posits that Verseweyveld’s design “saps the space of much of its energy”.

Most critics are arrayed between these extremes, admiring the precision of Van Hove’s direction, but recoiling from its overt symbolism. Billington complains that the director “makes Ibsen’s subtext overexplicit”, while for Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★), “it’s a bit gimmicky, but works”.

Hedda Gabler – a contemporary anachronism?

Van Hove’s production – elements of which have been transported from stagings in Amsterdam and New York – uses a brand new adaptation by Patrick Marber. For Delgano, Marber’s text is “seething with sexuality, darkness and humour.” For Crompton it is “supple, spare and funny”. But it’s an adaptation that lifts Hedda out of her social context. And that’s a problem for some.

The argument, simplified, goes as follows: Ibsen was writing about a specific moment in history, a time of nascent female empowerment in a predominantly patriarchal society, so by divorcing Hedda Gabler from her late 19th century surroundings, much of the sense behind Ibsen’s play evaporates. Comprende?

It’s a point emphasised in a persuasively argued review by Rosemary Waugh (Exeunt), which has ignited some heated discussion on social media. “Trying to understand Hedda without her backdrop is like trying to understand Betty Friedan’s housewives without their closeted 1950s American lifestyles,” she rails. “Or it’s like trying to fathom what is wrong with Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar without Ladies’ Day magazine and Rosenbergs.”

Updating Ibsen has two consequences, according to Waugh. Firstly, the dramatic rationale is left in tatters, or as Gibson more exuberantly puts it: “Why, you want to shout at Ruth Wilson’s languid form as she kicks at the ends of the sofa or doodles mindlessly at the living room piano, don’t you get yourself a bloody job?”

And secondly, it forces Hedda to be seen in a far less sympathetic light. For Waugh, instead of embodying female frustration in a male-dominated society, Hedda’s problems become “all her own making – the idea of her as a ‘coward’ is repeated – and stem from narcissism, greed and jealousy.”

The cherry on the icing of this critical reading comes in the form of a violent ending that, for Waugh and others, brims with “gratuitous misogyny”. An ending pithily skewered by Tripney:

“I’m fed up of watching women being violated, fed up of watching them being humiliated even if it is to demonstrate that women’s bodies are never completely their own. In productions directed by men. Turn the page.”

Hedda Gabler – is it any good?

Wilson is superb – have no doubt about that, but van Hove’s meticulous production has its flaws, both conceptual and cosmetic. It’s a sleek, stylish show, but one dogged by hyperactive symbolism and, for some, crippled by a text removed from its 19th century roots.

Some rave, and some rant, but one thing’s for sure: Van Hove’s Hedda Gabler is one heck of a talking point.