There is a rich tradition of male anti-heroes in drama: Hamlet, Eddie Carbone, even Walter White. But for women, the list is rather more limited. Yet, Hedda Gabler is one of the few neurotic female lead roles in theatre, and is often referred to as the ‘female Hamlet’ in terms of the role’s sheer dramatic weight.
Director Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen arrives in Edinburgh following a well-received run at the National Theatre. Playwright Patrick Marber has done an admirable job in streamlining the script and highlighting Ibsen’s dark humour, but it has to do some expositional heavy lifting, with the first act explicitly telling us the exact circumstances surrounding each character.
The lighting design, by Jan Versweyveld, is thoughtful and precise, as is the set. Designed as a large, unfurnished white box, it resembles a padded cell, taking us inside Hedda’s mind as she is confined and restricted by her family and her life. Within this sealed chamber, she stalks around the stage like a caged animal, prowling and crouching.
The performances as a whole ranges from solid to very good. Lizzy Watts as the troubled housewife is the highlight, giving a sardonic, blackly comic turn as Hedda. She takes a mordant glee in watching the lives around her unravel and implode, but this is more through boredom than malice. Like a cat, she plays with fates like balls of string for her own entertainment. Her husband is patronising and more concerned with his academic boys’ club, his aunt desperately wants her to become pregnant, and her former suitors feel like they still have ownership over her.
It is this struggle to create her own agency in a repressive and overbearing society that first made the play so shocking when Ibsen first published it at the turn of the century. However, this production is removed to a contemporary setting and in doing so, it loses a lot of its force through this depiction of a woman’s struggle against the strictures of her upper-class life. The setting is also not consistent: we see the use of video intercoms, but never a mobile phone. A key plot point surrounding a handwritten manuscript seems wildly anachronistic.
The oppressive languor of Hedda’s life also spills out into the direction: the action meanders, especially in the second act. As if aware of this, van Hove has inserted various gimmicks to keep us engaged, including songs by Joni Mitchell and Jeff Buckley that come off as a lazy attempt to evoke an emotional response. Many theatre directors have picked up the bad habit from films of relentlessly scoring nearly every dramatic moment, as though they do not trust the audience to understand the emotions or dynamics at work in the scene. In this production, a throbbing bass line and unsettling, tinkling piano lie underneath nearly every conversation, distracting from the drama being played out on stage.
Despite the faults of this staging, Ibsen’s play is a classic for a reason, and watching Hedda fight the lethal ennui that eventually engulfs her is both relevant and timely.
17 October – 21 October; 7.30pm, Matinees Thurs & Sat 2.30pm
Photo Credit: BrinkhoffM+Âgenburg