Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Hedda Gabler

By Henrik Ibsen in a new version by Patrick Marber
National Theatre
31 October 2017 to 04 November 2017

Hedda Gabler is a gift of a part that can be played by a star name or make one of the actor playing her.

The last time I saw it staged, Amanda Donohoe was Ibsen’s anti-heroine in Braham Murray’s production at The Royal Exchange.

I remember the attraction of seeing a big name in such an intimate setting and there was royalty in the audience - a relatively newly-wed, Prince Edward. In many ways I was aware I was watching a famous actor play a great part.

In comparison, Lizzy Watts is not a household name, although judging by this controlled performance I imagine she may become one. In a play about freedom, Watts freedom from the expectations of celebrity allows her to embody the role in a way that makes it memorable for being genuinely disturbing. And the unsettling nature of Ivo van Hove’s modern dress production is that Hedda, in all her delusion, is uncomfortably real.

Patrick Marber’s version draws attention to the dark comedy of the piece and brings us a Hedda for the 21st century, who still has the power to beguile and shock in equal measure.

Alongside debates about gun laws, relationship breakdown and constant need for entertainment, the story of Hedda Gabler takes on a new significance. The play opens with Hedda slumped over a piano while Tesman (Abhin Galeya), her academic bore of a husband, drones on about how he, of all the men dazzled by her beauty, won Hedda as his wife. For all his so-called intelligence, Tesman is as vacuous as the rest.

As the title suggests, Hedda, who still carries her maiden name, is not a woman to be owned. Fresh from a six-month honeymoon, the couple’s relationship is already in trouble. Deeply unhappy and bored to the level where she never gets dressed for the whole play, Hedda finds amusement in wreaking havoc on the lives of those around her. And in some ways she meets her subversive match in Brack (Adam Best), whose destructive influence is displayed coarsely with violence and sexual dominance.

The action takes place in Jan Versweyveld’s cavernous bare-walled set that takes up the expanse of the Lowry’s Lyric Theatre stage. Sometimes it feels the performers are rattling around, but perhaps that is intentional, as if the other characters are merely pawns in Hedda’s game.

The sparseness of Hedda and Tesman's supposed dream home, focuses attention on two hand guns kept in a glass cabinet on the wall. These, and the ominous background beating of a drum, tell us from the start this could end badly. Hedda may declare she wants to be ‘free from all ugliness,’ but things about to get very ugly indeed.

Reviewer: Carmel Thomason


Comment by David Cunningham

In the original version Hedda was confined by the norms that society, at the time, imposed upon women and was forced to live out her ambitions vicariously by slyly manipulating other people. In Patrick Marber’s contemporary setting Hedda is driven more by her internal neuroses .Hedda is not a likeable character swanning around the stage showing her contempt for guests by wearing just her dressing gown and slip and taking for granted her many privileges while coveting things to which she is not entitled. Possibly to soften the character we are reminded of Hedda’s mental confusion by her fixating on Joni Mitchell’s Blue which she alone can hear.  

Hedda’s obsessions seem trivial compared to the devastating impact her actions have but Lizzy Watts’s performance demonstrates that, for Hedda, nothing is more important. Although Hedda’s physical movements are languid Watts gives her an underlying mania that is quite frightening.

Director Ivo van Hove sets a  dreamlike futuristic atmosphere; it is possible that the events may be playing out in Hedda’s disturbed mind .

The UK is currently being scandalised by reports of women in the entertainment industry and Parliament suffering unwanted sexual advance from men. The scene between Hedda and Brack is, therefore, bang up to date. Rather than rely on Hedda being compelled by the need to avoid her misdeeds becoming public  Brack physically restrains and humiliates her. It is an ugly scene and, it might be argued, unnecessary as one might imagine that Hedda would find it easier to justify submitting to someone physically stronger than to accepting she has lost her battle and must conform to one of the accepted roles of women – being seduced against her will.

Ivo van Hove adds a number of innovations some of which are challenging. This is especially the case with the conclusion where Hedda’s desperate actions, rather than draw a stunned response that someone could defy societal norms, are viewed dispassionately by the other characters seated on a sofa as if watching television.