When people call Hedda the female Hamlet, they really mean:
A. She’s always the smartest person in the room, for all the good it does her.
B. She has a thing about her dear old dad, deceased.
C. Shrinks love turning her into a case study—real shrinks and the dime-store variety (critics).
D. Something is rotten in the state of Norway.
E. Search me.
The answer—you guessed it—is all of the above. Trapped in a marriage of convenience to an academic who bores her to distraction, the snooty picture of propriety but a truffle hound for scandal about others, Ibsen’s belle dame sans merci self-medicates with firearms and with fire.
Originally a cutting-edge contemporary drama, Hedda Gabler has aged into a period piece, and there are advantages to staging it that way. To the Belgian über-director Ivo van Hove, a historic approach would surely have seemed too shopworn. For his debut at London’s National Theatre in 2017, he mounted a radically stripped-down production on an all-but-empty stage, ditching Ibsen’s Victorian Kristiania (now Oslo), circa 1891, for a transactional here-and-now devoid of any true sense of time or place. Filmed in live performance and streaming now on the National Theatre at Home Web Site, the show constitutes a masterclass in the higher histrionics.
Ruth Wilson’s liquid-nitrogen Hedda is, as it must be, the principal attraction. Other characters speak of the character’s charm and breeding, but Wilson torpedoes such illusions. Half-dressed and barefoot, she slinks from pose to pose, flexing her claws, dripping disdain. And at the moment when your grandmother’s Hedda—a flamboyant musician—whips through a virtuoso danse infernale at the piano to vent her smothered fury, Wilson bounces up and down the keyboard on her backside, battering whatever other ivories she can reach with the palms of her hands.
Among the many who provoke Hedda’s rages, Sinead Matthews comes in for special mauling as Thea, a Goldilocks possessed of the courage Hedda can only dream of. Then there’s Hedda’s namby-pamby husband Tesman, puffed up at the prospect of a professorship he doesn’t deserve, purring over his reunion with his favorite embroidered slippers. That part goes to Kyle Soller, an incongruously boyish, balletic actor who works lots in London yet opts here for the accent of his native Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Chukwudi Iwuji, from the former British colony of Nigeria, brings a coiled muscularity to Lovborg, the blazing but unstable visionary Hedda once loved and lost. And as Judge Brack, who springs the final trap on Hedda, Rafe Spall oozes the self-satisfaction of a bully destined to discover, too late, that he has overplayed his hand.
Hedda Gabler is available for streaming on the National Theatre at Home Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii