It’s astonishing to think this painfully raw, searingly relevant play was first performed 125 years ago. There are moments in this symbolism-heavy production directed by Ivo van Hove that could have crawled from the mind of that enfant terrible of the 1990s Sarah Kane. The world gets older; Ibsen stays the same age.
It’s one of those plays that makes people question the fundamentals of their lives. It must be up there with Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road as a leading cause of break-ups among English literature graduates. “What is unbearable is to be stuck with just one person,” sighs Hedda, and those with bands on their left ring fingers inwardly sigh along with her.
Ruth Wilson brilliantly portrays the childlike malevolence of Hedda, a woman who has sacrificed her agency at the altar of respectability. Bright, articulate and terribly, terribly bored, Hedda loathes her infantalised life as the kept woman of a mild-mannered anthropologist.
She’s an adult who’s still pulling the hair of her classmates, a damaged creature lashing out at a world that constricts and objectifies her. She’s treated as a doll by women, who grab at her red hair and childless belly, and a sex doll by men, who boast of having “privileged access” to her and promise to “occupy her”.
Hedda attempts to find escape, even a twisted beauty, in the pain of others. She tempts an alcoholic back to the bottle, destroys a romance, throws wild, giddy tantrums.
Van Hove makes some bold stylistic choices, most of which pay off. The young cast reinvent Ibsen’s characters: Hedda’s usually stuffy husband becomes a thrusting young American, likeable and dynamic; Rafe Spall’s Judge Brack is a deliciously sinister charmer, his lasciviousness eventually boiling over into outright sexual violence. The scene in which he flaunts his newfound power over Hedda becomes a brutal humiliation involving some highly symbolic tomato juice, providing the evening’s enduring image.
There are less wise flourishes, however: musical interludes between scenes – Blue by Joni Mitchell is played four times – are jarring, and the first time I half expected Wilson to burst into song. More effective is the pulsing heartbeat that fades in during pivotal moments, quickening as the tension rises.
Jan Versweyveld’s set, which never shifts from Hedda’s unfurnished apartment, is institutionally sparse, the freshly plastered walls acting as a projector screen for noir-ish shadows from the window blinds, or the rust-red light of a dying sun. A pair of pistols are the only decoration, mounted on the wall in a glass case. They belonged to Hedda’s military father, although they might as well have been Chekhov’s.
It’s hard to overstate the potency of a gun in a theatre. In films they hold little sway, but point a gun at a live audience and it feels like someone’s holding a taut elastic band near to your eye. You recoil. It’s unpleasant, exciting and transfixing all at once. So is this excellent production.
First published in City A.M.