Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen is at The Festival Theatre in Edinburgh this week, and is brought refreshingly up to date with this National Theatre production in a new version by Patrick Marber. Often the very phrase “new version” when referring to a classic work like this can be enough to set alarm bells off in many people, but this is a wonderful piece of theatre and it is easy to see why this production has been getting so many rave reviews so far.
Hedda Gabler is one of the great female characters of all time and when the work was written over 125 years ago in 1890 by Henrik Ibsen, Hedda must have been the equivalent of a small nuclear detonation to contemporary audiences. Hedda Gabler is everything that you don’t expect her to be…beneath an exterior of beauty that has men (and women) circling around her constantly, the interior emotional space that is Hedda is a very ugly place to be, and this lady likes nothing more than to be in control of others around her. Hedda is a bit like an ancient Greek goddess, beautiful, bored with the mundane realities of everyday life and of those around her (particularly her new husband). Hedda takes perverted pleasure in her ability to manipulate others around her for little more than self gratification that often crosses the boundary line into outright cruelty to others. When the scales of power are turned on her and another person has that power over her, Hedda simply cannot accept the consequences.
Hedda Gabler is brought wonderfully to life by Lizzy Watts. Here is a Hedda on stage that you can take an instant disliking to from the first few lines as she walks around in her own self absorbed world apparently oblivious to how others are perceiving her. There is an honesty here at times that many people are probably watching and wishing they had the courage to at times be a little more like Hedda. There are also some wonderfully dry humorous lines here. Hedda Gabler is a surprisingly funny piece of “black comedy” in parts and Lizzy Watts delivers everything with beautiful timing. Yes, Lizzy Watts’ Hedda can be an appalling human being at times, but Lizzy is wonderful in this part, the script is razor sharp, and you just can’t help but sit there waiting for the next word from Hedda. As with all the great scripts though, the most powerful moments here are often when there is nothing but silence. It seems that only the very best of writers know how to use no words at all and let silence speak volumes.
Giving very strong performances and an atmosphere of solid reality around Hedda are the central people who have by default fallen into the task of orbiting around the self centred world that is Hedda Gabler. Spinning around faster than most others is new husband Tesman played convincingly by Abhin Galeya. Tesman’s blind love of Hedda allows him to rarely see what others see in his new wife, and even when he does, her powers of manipulation over him are so powerful that his views are swiftly adjusted. Abhin Galeya is a perfect balance on stage to Lizzy’s Hedda.
There are no weak links in this chain, everyone is utterly convincing in their roles-
Mrs Elvsted - Annabel Bates
Brack - Adam Best
Juliana - Christine Kavanagh
Berte - Madlena Nedeva
Lovborg - Richard Pyros
Out of all of those around her, only Brack seems to truly understand just what drives the inner soul of Hedda, and Adam Best brings to life a character that is never under her spell and constantly at duelling odds with her. Out of everyone, he knows exactly how to handle Hedda.
Annabel Bates as Mrs Elvsted remembers a Hedda Gabler from their days at school, and even her elevation in recent years by marriage up the strictly formal social ladder of society has done nothing to dull her painful memories of her encounter with the younger version. Through Mrs Elvsted we realise quickly as an audience that Hedda has always been Hedda, she has never changed.
This production feels so fresh and contemporary that it is hard to believe that the original material is over 125 years old. Some people may not like the use of songs from Joni Mitchell, Jeff Buckley and Nina Simone in a production of Hedda Gabler, but for me it works well. Tonight’s performance was a captioned performance, and watching the lyrics to the songs made it obvious why these ones were used here. A great production from the National Theatre that is as razor sharp as some of Hedda Gabler’s own words to those around her.
Review by Tom King