Hedda Gabler

Henrik Ibsen
National Theatre (NT live)
Picturehouse, Stratford-upon-Avon and other venues

Ruth Wilson as Hedda Gabler Credit: National Theatre
Ruth Wilson as Hedda with Rafe Spall as Brack Credit: National Theatre

Contemporary settings of Shakespeare may be as common as muck, but it’s harder to imagine similar reinterpretations of some classic products of their time. Take Chekhov, for example, or until I saw this Ivo van Hove production, Hedda Gabler.

The Belgian avant garde director has turned Ibsen’s 1891 masterwork into a piece of Berlin-style expressionism. The emotional dial has been turned to maximum, the dialogue is forte.

Instead of the claustrophia of the original petit bourgeois provinciality, the action takes place in an agoraphobic, vast, doorless white loft, largely unfurnished except for an appropriately upright piano with its strings showing.

And whereas the 19th-century Hedda was resentful and repressed, the mesmeric Ruth Wilson’s 21st-century recreation is positively certifiable.

She hisses like a cornered wildcat, staples flowers to the wall, and when it seems she has driven Chukwudi Iwuji’s infatuated Lovborg to suicide, she punches the air and dances like a dervish.

I felt something was lost by the translation in time, but the effect is deeply disturbing, and had the tension of a Nordic thriller.

And while Lovberg is driven into a hell of his own making, Rafe Spall as Brack tortures Hedda with in-your-face cruelty, spewing a stream of blood-red tomato juice over her white negligee.

Her husband, Kyle Soller as her bookish, decent, boring husband Tesman seems as a result surprisingly unaware of the monsters come to inhabit his madhouse. If it’s van Hove’s vision, it’s a grim one indeed.

This NT live transmission can be seen as an encore on Wednesday 15 March.

Reviewer: Colin Davison