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Hedda Gabler at Lyttleton Theatre until 21st March 2017

| Theatre | 03/02/2017

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Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer

Ruth Wilson’s complex, witty and sinister portrayal of Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre may well be the stage performance of 2017.

Hedda Gabler is probably the best play you’ll see all year.  That’s partly in the writing: Henrik Ibsen’s dark portrayal of a beautiful, bored and destructive woman – first debuted in 1891 – has been marvelously modernised by Patrick Marber (Closer, Notes on a Scandal) and directed by Ivo van Hove.  But it’s mainly in the acting: Ruth Wilson dominates every scene from the moment you take your seat to see her slumped over a piano, drunkenly, distractedly and despairingly stabbing a tune from its keys.

Wilson is made for this role, established as a proven performer of vulnerable and reckless characters (Luther, The Affair), adjusting her piercing eyes and pout to perfection.  Hedda is both tragic heroine and conniving monster – and much more.  She resents that people think she’s “lovely”, rails at the boredom of domestic life and punishes herself for settling with nerdy new husband, Tesman, over more interesting admirers simply because “it was time”.

Tesman, played enthusiastically by Kyle Soller, is plainly an unsuitable match.  Then again, anyone would be.  As Ibsen wrote, Hedda’s demon is that “she wants to influence another human being, but once that has happened, she despises him.”  Hedda recognises this flaw – an insatiable desire for power – when she confides to her husband’s best friend, Brack, that she has “no talent for life”.

ruth_wilson_and_rafe_spall_in_hedda_gabler-1024x576Wilson wears Hedda’s frustrated heart on her sleeve throughout the first half of the production.  She huffs, stomps and smolders across stage, as quick with a bitchy marital put-down as she is to flirt with Brack, the excellently laddish Rafe Spall (Hot Fuzz, The Big Short), who knows her carnally but – she says – has no hold over her.

At first, Hedda’s frustration seems incongruous: although bookish and child-like, Tesman is well-meaning and has at least provided a comfortable escape from her chaotic life.

But you increasingly understand her claustrophobia as each scene remains set in the sparse, cream cube representing the newlyweds’ house.  The only interruptions are the sun’s movements through the sole window and the aromas assaulting the audience when Wilson hurls fresh flowers across the stage or lights a cigarette.

Something changes when Tesman’s academic rival, Lovborg, returns from exile.  It’s clear this change won’t be benign: the simple, brooding music bookending each scene already hints at Scandi noir, which the Norwegian Ibsen’s work precursed.  It emerges that Lovborg seduced Hedda in her youth, before his bacchanalian ways necessitated a fresh start.  Now he’s sober and written an exciting new manuscript, but still has a weakness for Hedda, and she for him.

It’s unclear whether Hedda resents Lovborg for corrupting her or breaking her heart.  “I was a girl,” she complains rawly to him.  “You had secret knowledge.  I wanted it.  I wanted to know everything I was forbidden to know.”  Either way, she wishes him harm, shoving Lovborg off the wagon so spectacularly that he loses his work.  Tesman finds it and takes the manuscript home, intending to reunite it with Lovborg despite envying its brilliance.  Hedda immediately comes alive, hinting at Lady Macbethian ambition for her husband, but she’s too complex for simple motives.

chukwudi_iwuji_and_ruth_wilson_in_hedda_gabler-2578x1450Instead, when left alone she burns the pages.  It seems from the way Wilson’s face glows beyond the flames that this isn’t an act of nihilism: it’s a power trip.  And one that takes a more sinister turn when Hedda provides an inconsolable Lovborg – the energetic Chukwudi Iwuji – with a pair of her father’s pistols.  Wilson’s dreamlike drawl and far-away countenance shows Hedda’s lost all grip of consequences as she urges her former lover to “do it beautifully!”  But she can’t escape consequence for long.

When Lovborg’s final act is discovered, Brack spots the pistols.  He guesses Hedda’s involvement and – growing increasingly malevolent – Spall delivers a chilling ultimatum, using red liquid from a drink can to shocking effect.  We know what he has in mind: when Tesman asks him to occupy Hedda for a while, Brack sneers: “Oh, yes.  I intend to occupy her fully.”  Although Hedda once willingly bedded Brack, that was on her terms and this transfer of power proves too much to bear.

The play is a tragedy, with death and despair touching everyone, but it’s also deceptively funny at times.  Marber deserves great credit for this, staying true to the play’s roots: Tennessee Williams irritated others by laughing through a performance at the National Theatre nearly 50 years ago.  In its modern form, the humour comes from Wilson’s biting remarks, Soller’s naivety and Spall’s darkening traits.  But also in the fact that, ultimately, the tragic heroine got what was coming to her: it was time.

Hedda Gabler is being performed at Lyttleton Theatre – part of the National Theatre – until 21st March 2017.  For tickets, head here.  Or for those unable to get tickets to this exceptional production, it will be broadcast live in cinemas on Thursday 9th March 2017.  To find your nearest participating cinema, head here.

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