What shines through Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler on tour this autumn from the National Theatre is not the light of talented director, cast or translation but the insight and thoughtfulness of Ibsen himself. Marketed as a ‘Hedda for our time’, this production and more specifically Patrick Marber’s disappointing translation of Ibsen’s 1890 play attempts and fails to align the playwrights exploration of the patriarchal institutions of marriage and motherhood, wealth and the pursuit of knowledge for power with a contemporary context. Hedda views herself as oppressed; by her husband, his aunt and her gender, yet here, in contrast to Ibsen’s 19th Century Hedda, she is merely oppressed by her own apathy. No longer a hyperbole of the upper-class-every-woman, van Hove’s Hedda (Lizzy Watts) is confined in her apartment and her boredom by choice, out of touch and self-absorbed.
The audience must stay with Hedda in her oppressively vast apartment throughout the events of the play; all thoughts of the outside world brought in with her visitors’ stories and chinks of light through the blinds. Their new apartment is bare and sparse, jarring with Hedda’s desire for beautifully calculated order. Watts is undoubtedly magnetic, her Hedda is mercurial, cold and vivid. Despite the enormity of the stage she manages to fill it. Her piano, her father’s pistols and her unborn child are constant energies in the space. All are extensions of herself and tension she creates and exacerbates.
Her white, silk nightgown exposes her vulnerability before she does. Other than the dark shape of the maid’s dress making her constant presence all the more pronounced, the costumes are (perhaps deliberately) unremarkable.
The performances are equally so. The production is peppered with comical melodrama and inexpressive intonation. Few sentiments are believable, which is hindered further by Marber’s bizarre translation, the tone and syntax of which rarely resemble contemporary speech. Perhaps the lack of nuance and authentic emotion in the acting was a directorial decision, the caricatures portrayed reflecting Hedda’s lack of empathy. This did not however prove compelling for an audience member.
Whilst the piano score was effectively haunting at points, vocal pieces forced into superfluous moments between scenes were detrimental to the tension and tone, slowing an already plodding performance. Leonard Cohen’s Halleluiah was a laughably poor choice in what was intended to be a climactic and poignant sequence.
Reviews of Hedda Gabler’s run in London this summer led me to expect a masterpiece but this touring version was sadly disappointing. Whilst the ideas it raises have continued to intrigue me, that is not to the credit of the National Theatre’s production team, but to Ibsen himself.