Patrick Marber’s new version of Ibsen’s classic Hedda Gabler is a rollercoaster in more ways than one. As the atmosphere swells and falls, in director Ivo van Hove’s imagining of the play, so does the quality of the performances.
At times brilliant and others dull, the inconsistency of the performances is redeemed by genuinely fantastic set design. The grandeur of the Theatre Royal is a worthy home for such an esteemed play, and the novel, modern approach utilised in this performance provides an interesting contrast to the theatre’s historic ambience.
The initially-immaculate, white, cavernous apartment-room seems to transform before us as the story progresses. What initially appears as an open, perfect and liberated space slowly becomes a twisted representation of Hedda’s psyche and circumstances.
The towering walls become unscalable prison walls; the decoratively-framed guns become a focal point, an inevitability; light bursts, fragmented, from small gaps beneath the walls, making the sense of oppression and rapidly-fading hope all the more intense.
“The set design is the central strength of the play”
The set also undergoes a physical transformation, which is one of the play’s points of genius. As time passes, the outbursts from Hedda (Lizzy Watts) leave their residue on the stage. Flowers are scattered, paperwork spills from an overturned box and windows are boarded up; we get a real sense that irreparable damage is being done.
The set layout does occasionally obscure the audience’s view of the onstage action, and the maid’s unconvincing interaction with a doorbell-microphone communication panel hinders suspension of disbelief, but generally, the set design is the central strength of the play.
The almost constantly burning fire in the background of the second half added an ever-present, organic sense of looming passion and fury to the play – another demonstration of the performance’s symbolic strength. Lighting is also utilised extremely well, with gloomy darkness underscoring Hedda’s psychotic descent, and coloured lighting serving as an indicator of the rising and falling of Hedda’s perceived power.
“Performing as Hedda Gabler is no easy task, but Lizzy Watts carries it out well.”
Power is one thing the actors portray very effectively. Hedda’s malignant joy in her assertions of any power she can grasp is menacingly shown by Lizzy Watts’ subtle acting style. Brack (Adam Best) becomes truly intimidating as he viciously assaults Hedda, in one of the play’s most disturbing sequences, wherein Brack symbolically spits deep red juice over a traumatised Hedda.
Performing as Hedda Gabler is no easy task, but Lizzy Watts carries it out well. Playing the role as rationally as Watts does is intermittently successful, though this rationality of character does make her climactic breakdown feel somewhat ill-fitting. Though her purposefully subdued performance edges on tedious at times, there is a certain enigmatic electricity generated by Watts’ sensual meandering around the stage, sprawling herself over furniture and enamoured men. And, indeed, the male characters do seem completely, believably and inescapably enamoured with Hedda.
Tesman’s obliviousness and frailty of character are well emphasised by his constant dashing on and off of the stage, but he is a little too visually distinct and charmingly-performed to allow him to be true to the mundane bore that Ibsen’s Tesman inherently is. Of course, performing such a classic play necessitates novel approaches, but Abhin Galeya’s performance left me feeling that he would have better suited the brilliant and eccentric Lovborg.
“Adds to the atmosphere of domestic oppression and insidiousness”
Indeed, Richard Pyros’ somewhat tame performance of Lovborg did at times lead me to yearn for a role reversal of the two. The ever-present, mostly silent maid, Berte (Madlena Nedeva), subtly adds to the atmosphere of domestic oppression and insidiousness, while Annabel Bates offers a stark contrast with an emotive and touching performance as Mrs Elvsted.
Van Hove’s unique spin on this classic is certainly worth watching, if for the incredibly effective staging alone. But the somewhat restrained performances do leave a certain amount to be desired, emotionally, considering the vitality of the source material.
There is also a distinct feeling of clumsiness to certain parts of the play, which is out of key with the tightness of its main body, which is somewhat jarring and negates from the emotional impact that is attempted. As an early performance, this is to be expected, so hopefully as the performers become more accustomed to the Theatre Royal the smoothness of the play will improve, as will the fervour with which the characters deserve to be played.
Images courtesy of Nottingham Theatre Royal