Thursday 22nd February 2018 at Grand Opera House York.
In what is a truly riveting production, Lizzy Watts simmers, flares and spits as the seminal Henrik Ibsen character Hedda Gabler. This new version from Patrick Marber, directed by Ivo van Hove, is a heavily dramatic and masterfully intense staging of a classic text. Currently touring following a successful run at the National Theatre, the production takes a text from 1890 and puts a new time stamp on it, offering up a security camera sequence every time a character arrives to the Tesman residence; the focus on surveillance capturing the close scrutiny which pervades Hedda’s life in one way or another. The attitudes and interactions between characters feel more developed and contemporary than roles befitting the nineteenth century, but the depicted values and expectations of men and women are very much preserved as the restrictive catalysts for the puzzling plot points and our perplexing protagonist. There are truly shocking moments captured in Hedda Gabler – moments to send eyebrows soaring and noses wrinkling; perhaps the greatest strength of the production is the ability to surprise and to disgust.
Hedda has married driven academic Tesman (Abhin Galeya) who is promised ascension in the ranks but is threatened by the return of Lovborg (Richard Pyros), who has written a new masterpiece. While the men have purpose in academia, Hedda has none; she is left at home – a home she is not able to work on for temporary financial restrictions – to fill her time without input. An omniscient maid of ambiguous function is her only constant company. The only variety in her life is the return of her husband and other men, whose conversation she finds dull and whom she finds pleasure in teasing and manipulating. She is visited by a woman known from school and Tesman’s aunt (Christine Kavanagh) too – but the aunt is too self-assured for Hedda’s games while the visiting lady offers a plethora of opportunities for Hedda, who insidiously extracts from the vulnerable woman every secret she has before wreaking havoc with the knowledge. Her feelings of repression and boredom lead to a psychosis of sorts and her only release is to abuse and manipulate those around her – to feel in control, she must gain control of others. It is only when her actions spiral to cause catastrophic events that her perception of her own power is challenged – while her husband lacks true power over her, Brack, played with sinister authority by Adam Best, provides an alarming reality check for Hedda. She is forced to recognise that despite everything she has done and does, she remains powerless and without true purpose – her greatest fears and most tormenting frustration.Every performance in this play is quietly gripping, with each character offering an energy of their own to any given scene until the stage is a conical flask of chemicals with differing qualities but a common ability to cause change. Lizzy Watts gives a thrilling performance as the enigmatically unstable Hedda. The character is full of life but also full of despair at her lot. Hedda is enticingly sensual for the men but that sensuality is only a weapon for Hedda. Watts’ gives a masterclass in the art of reacting; Hedda’s facial expressions tell twenty unknown thoughts in a few minutes of dialogue and that transience and opaque element to her character make the performance fascinating. Jan Versweyveld’s lighting design is emotionally sensitive and tracks Hedda’s journey with moody tones and subtle shifts. Berte the maid is played by Madlena Nedeva and is another thoroughly ambiguous character; ever present but hardly ever acting, she offers nothing but a question of complicity. To know all that she does and to never act to prevent, she seems to be the embodiment of subservience – yet a puzzling scene at the close of Act one injects new mystery as to her role in Hedda’s life.Abhin Galeya is brilliant as Tesman, Hedda’s disappointing husband. Full of energy and a mildly troubled optimism, Hedda’s vicious comments delivered flippantly are accepted as such – Tesman either smiles at the quip or his ears refuse to hear the true resentment in her tone. Galeyais’ most emotional performances are directed at Tesman’s work, not his wife and this serves to beautifully highlight Hedda’s feelings of emptiness. There’s surprising comedy offered through their marriage too – neither seems to feel great love for the other and Hedda’s constant dismissal, challenge or mockery of her husband is delivered with an acid tongue and expressionless face but with a glint in the eye. Their surprise at claims of affection from one another cause laughter, but they also betray the underlying uncertainty in the relationship on both parts, not just Hedda’s. Lovborg is the tragic male here. Richard Pyros offers us a desperate view of an academic clawing his way back into the fray while juggling an unstable love life. He’s easy prey for Hedda and he seems to know it though he’s unable to escape her power. Mrs Elvsted, the visitor and once school companion (though her tales tell more of torment than companionship) of Hedda is played with equal powerless desperation by Annabel Bates. Bates’ performance is cleverly layered, providing humour, moral questions and some poignancy too – hers is another tragic nineteenth century tale of marriage and disappointment bitingly retained in this version.Versweyveld’s set is misleadingly basic and simple; a select few pieces of domestic furniture are dotted about a bare set bereft of comfort or homely style. Yet the set has hidden compartments and subtle signs of wear, much like the characters and plot as it unfolds. There are markers of contemporary life through notable set pieces like a sliding patio door and the CCTV entrances along with a satin negligee (costume by An D’Huys) – oh yes, and the hand guns – always intruding on every scene, framed against a bare wall, promising impending danger. It’s a cold and bare vision of a home from Versweyveld and it is a perfect reflection of the story.This production of Hedda Gabler is a gripping, intrusive and brilliantly staged rendition of a respected text with impressive longevity. The characters range from compelling to repellent and every cast member delivers here. Lizzy Watts gives a disturbing, joyless performance which very much carries the production as a whole – all other performances serve Hedda’s story and Watts’ solid central performance secures the success of the production. It’s a story purposefully slow to unravel which excels at making static scenes of little action riveting and vital rather than losing momentum. While the story feels relevant to now, I think a period production might serve the strength of Ibsen’s narrative on social constructs and female roles more powerfully, but this production brings the text to life with impressive modern sharpness. If you enjoy psychological thrillers and plays to challenge ideals, this is certainly the production for you.
Hedda Gabler continues to tour until March 10th 2019 and you can find tickets and venue information here.