Review: Hedda Gabler (The Lyttelton)
Updated: Jun 10, 2022
I tend to find single-minded, ego-stroking reviews of the lead actor/actress a bit of a bore. As soon as there’s a big production of a classic play (“Antigone”, “A Doll’s House”, and anything Shakespearian), one can always rely on the critics to wank over the inevitably famous lead actor’s either dazzling or miserable performance, and entirely overlook the hard work put in by everybody else. “I will not be like that”, I promise myself. “My writing will reflect the involvement of everyone on and behind the stage”. Let that be noted. Now, to business. Wasn’t Ruth Wilson just incredible?
Starring in Ivo Van Hove’s production with National Theatre, she played the timeless eponymous character with utter conviction. Wilson encapsulated Hedda’s loneliness and crippling, mind-altering boredom through her unrelenting sarcasm, her heartless manipulation, and her joyous and outraged frolicking about the stage as soon as she was left alone. The iconic feminist character is unlikable, with no good or selfless motivation inside of her, and Wilson makes sure that she cannot be liked, cannot allow the audience to side with her. And yet, we do. It is impossible to dislike her, to laugh when she savagely cuts into her husband George Tesman (played by Kyle Soller) in undermining his already fragile self-esteem, or cross our fingers when her ex-lover Løvborg (played by Chukwudi Iwuji) weeps over a lost manuscript that he doesn’t find where she has hidden it. She seems made for the role, and, having never seen, read or even heard of this play before last night, I can’t imagine anyone else being able to match it.
Wilson was certainly in good company, with strong performances from all of the supporting cast. Soller was charming in his role as a slightly nerdy husband in such great need of distraction that he blinds himself from seeing his wife suffering from the same thing. Rafe Spall played the vicious Brack with a sexual magnitude that made every step he made towards Hedda seem significant. If I have any complaints, I confess I did not entirely buy into Iwuji’s vulnerability as a recovering alcoholic. His hurt at being doubted by his covert lover was believable, but once hung-over, depressed and regretful, seemed a little too polite and polished.
As far as direction and design go, it is difficult to pick fault. The blank canvas of the empty room in which Hedda occupies “forever and eternally” epitomised Hedda’s sense of barren loneliness as well as, perhaps, her personality – lacking colour or imagination and therefore needing drama to be stirred in order to keep it alive and interesting. The production is made relatively modern, but the exact timings are left ambiguous – featuring outfits that could be from any time within the last 50 years, it ensures that Ibsen’s masterpiece is not reduced to a museum piece (a possibility that Hove emphasised during his short interview during the interval), as its relationships and interactions are applicable to any time setting.
There were chinks in the armour though. Scenes transitioned, usually quite smoothly, with a Kate Bush-esque song played over Hedda moving around her empty chasm of a room. For the last scene, however, the song was changed to a slightly clichéd rendition of “Hallelujah”, which took me out of the moment and rather frustratingly lessened the tension. Not smashing it, just diminishing it enough to lose a degree of engagement. The tone of the last scene also took a while to get into gear, which was a shame because up until that point the melancholy tension had been maintained perfectly. Fortunately, it ramped up again for Brack’s interaction with Hedda to be sufficiently intimidating.
But how, you may ask, did I make it down to London’s Lyttelton theatre on a Thursday? Through technology! After running for nearly four months, and going on tour later in the year (performing at Aberdeen’s HMT in November), the National Theatre production was broadcast live to cinemas across the country, and after seeing this production and Three Penny Opera last year, I have reached the conclusion that watching theatre productions in the cinema is a wee bit crap. I love going to the cinema, but seeing mere projections so not allow for the same emotional connections as being in the same room as the performance allows. It also leaves you with a less engaged audience, but who, in defiance, remain as snobbish as though they had splashed out £50 for a night of high-brow theatre. Whilst this did allow for some fun in testing the boundaries of theatre etiquette by bringing in popcorn, as well as playing a game of who’s-the-youngest-here (which I won), it would be a lie to say it did not leave a slight blot on my experience.
Overall, it’s brilliant. The emotions are raw. The relationships are complex. Every moment has you totally fixated on how each character will react. I am sad I couldn’t enjoy it in person, but I’m glad I could enjoy it somehow. Four stars.
P.S. My apologies for my unsightly imagery in my opening paragraph, I am using it to see how many people read my reviews. Undoubtedly it will come back to bite me.