Fuelled with rage, Hedda Gabler (Ruth Wilson) staples the stems of flowers, reminiscent of beauty, innocence and womanhood, to the walls of her bare abode – an image taken from Ivo van Howe’s adaptation of the renowned Hedda Gabler by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, performed at the National Theatre in Southbank, London.
Being one of my absolute favourite plays – performed at an equally favoured theatre – my expectations were very high for this performance. And, to an extent, they were met. What was most notable about this play was its efficacious and symbolic imagery, that on which I shall elaborate firstly.
It is undeniable that the imagery used in this performance is compelling and powerful. On entering the Lyttelton Theatre, the audience is greeted by a clinical and white stage with concrete flooring, somewhat resembling an unfinished art gallery, with squares and patches of lighter whites in symmetrical patterns along the walls. A clever wink for the dramatists among the audience to the Chekhovian statement that guns onstage must be fired, Upstage Right, a glass case embedded in the walls, containing two pistols. Stage Right, a plethora of flowers in front of a small ledge which sits below a large reflective glass pane. On either corner of the ledge, a high heel shoe, and further upstage, a long rectangular mirror. And Upstage Right sits Berte, poised, hair slicked back into a tight blonde bob, high heels on, and orange-red flowers on her lap. A wonderful contrast to Hedda, Centerstage, who is slumped over a piano with her back to the audience, legs wide open, shoeless and in a night gown. A marvellous setup for a play perforated by themes of female inferiority and oppression.
Berte’s presence is maintained throughout the performance, an eerie constancy in the corner of the stage. Whilst seeming to symbolise womanhood, elegant and sat upright, there is also a connection to be drawn by the fact that she is dressed in black, an ironic homage to Hedda’s dissatisfaction in marriage after coming back from a six-moth honeymoon. However, my perception of Berte changed again and again. At moments, she seemed to side with Hedda, laughing when she burned Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji)’s manuscript, defending her with a “It’s the shock” when she states how “beautiful” his apparent suicide is. At the end of Act One, she walks over to Hedda, Centerstage, and shares with her a pack of cigarettes. The two take their heels off and…blackout. Perhaps, I thought, she represented status, being a maid, and redundancy, shackled to the corner. Or perhaps, in taking off her high heels and coming from the ‘feminine corner’, she symbolised the completion of Hedda’s using her female influence to get her way. Whatever this symbolised, this cigarette-sharing established a clear, even deep, relationship between the two of them. However, in Act Two, she proceeds to criticise Hedda to Mrs Elvsted. This makes it unclear as to where Berte lies in this play. It could be suggested that this Berte cannot be perceived in a logical way, that she represents in herself the overarching themes of the play, oppression, the conscience of Hedda, etc. But, for me, she seemed much too incoherent and somewhat conflicted with the action.
The piano plays a very interesting part in this performance. Whilst reminding us of the monotony of Hedda’s discontent as she plays the same notes again and again, the piano was almost symbolic of her calculating dispositions. After comforting Mrs Elvsted, Mrs Elvsted sits at the piano, almost as if she has fallen into her trap, so to speak; the Judge, when the power dynamic between him and Hedda is switched, paces speedily around it; as one last cry for power, for attention, Hedda sits on the keys of the piano, jarringly bouncing upon them. But what most effectively represents Hedda’s control lies within her interaction with the set – particularly, the blinds upon the large glass pane, and the plethora of flowers. On the exit of Mr Tesman (Kyle Soller) and Juliana (Kate Duchêne), Hedda takes to the blinds, opening and them shutting them repeatedly. This creates a beautiful rippling ocean of light across the stage – most cleverly designed by Jan Versweyveld, it must be noted. Her sheer control over the visual mood of the stage, her vigorous toying with it, demonstrated wonderfully her controlling nature. On top of this, we have the array of flowers which Hedda tosses into the air, utterly destroying their arrangement – this before, as stated in the introduction to this review, stapling a selection of them bare white walls of the set. This symbolised Hedda’s usage of femininity, of beauty in forcing it to wield to her, to complete her own desires. This is especially efficacious given that, when the flowers are removed, it is revealed that they were sat in paint and mop buckets and here Hedda is practically decorating and remodelling her house by her own means, which she has wanted for a long time.
This symbolism is reinforced with the entrance of the Judge who is the first to trample over the floor of flowers she has left onstage. The ‘feminine corner’ also serves its purpose in the entrance of Lovborg on which Hedda retreats to it to put on the high heels, let down her hair and apply makeup in the mirror.
Something quite pleasing was the sensory texture given to the performance. When flowers were tossed, some filtered into the audience, and once settled around the stage, the smell of lavender took to the stalls; in Act Two, the smell of the fire and the smell of the ‘blood’ used by the Judge. Whilst I cannot speak for those sitting further back in the theatre, this was a delectable quality to be conscious of.
Undeniably, then, this performance pivoted on its use of symbolism and imagery. What I was not too fond of, however, was the accompanying music to transitions or to the blinds/flowers moments I have just mentioned. To mark Hedda’s depression, the song ‘Blue’ by Joni Mitchell is played regularly. This, I thought, was a premature decision, close to cliché, in fact. Where the rest of the symbolism had been so thrillingly vague, a painfully-obvious link between blue and depression seemed embryonic. Moreover, as Hedda burns Lovborg’s manuscript, Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ is played. Whilst this retained what felt to be a much more fitting quality, pairing it with a harsh white light and a line of characters entering the stage – almost as priests carrying incense in a sermon – was a homage to a paradisiac bliss all too, again, premature. On the other hand, Hedda’s arms in the air, swaying softly behind the fire was a lovely image to see, but Wilson’s characterisation of Hedda was so mobile and unrestricted throughout the performance that I could not help but feel that this ‘relief’ was made a little anticlimactic.
On the whole, the characterisation, for me, seemed very unseasoned or disjointed from the narrative of the play. To explain, at the very beginning, a dialogue is pursued between Berte and Juliana. In the original, there is a clear relationship between the two which is open and compassionate. This was lost, as the two stayed very formal with and (spatially) distant from one another. Perhaps a deliberate decision made by Howe, but, for me, this took away from the contrast between the docile and loving relationships of other characters and the lascivious, power-obsessed relationships of Hedda’s. This contrast was especially depleted in the execution of Mr Tesman and Juliana’s relationship. Whilst the two spoke enthusiastically to each other, there were no moments of veritably-strong connection – which could have surfaced, for example, in their speaking of ill Auntie Rina. Moreover, when Hedda ridiculed what she ‘thought’ was Berte’s hat – actually belonging to Juliana – there was a lack of energy. Hedda did not seemed too surprised to find it was Juliana’s, and Juliana equally seemed as unaffected. It is small moments like this that came across as rather dry, but it is these that keep the manipulative characteristics of Hedda afloat. Especially as these moments are mentioned later on in the play – NB that Hedda explains to the judge that she “pretended to think it was Berte’s” – and if they are dry, the effect of these later moments make her seem much less conniving.
What’s more is the relationship between Mr Tesman and Hedda. Originally, the character of Mr Tesman means to come across as a very loving and doting husband who is, however, too absorbed in his books, history and anthropology, etc. to deliver Hedda the attention she deserves. It is this malleable cluelessness with which she is able to play. However, the power dynamic between the two was completely switched, an example of this being centred again around Juliana’s hat, when Mr Tesman abruptly (and somewhat over-exaggeratedly) barks Hedda’s name to stop her ridiculing. Whilst he was enthusiastic, his enthusiasm was limited to his mannerisms and comportments as opposed to being channelled into a head-in-books, fascinated-historian persona.
In themselves, these moments did not take too much away from the story. However, there were other more specific moments which, indeed, inhibited the narrative for me. To exemplify, one could refer to Mrs Elvsted’s entrance. Mrs Elvsted, having been bullied by Hedda in her youth, retains a terrible fear towards her. Mr Tesman, however, she views as caring and pacifyingly facilitative of her meeting with whom she believes to be the love of her life, Lovborg. One would imagine that these two different dynamics would influence Mrs Elvsted to communicate freely with Mr Tesman yet reservedly with Hedda. This was not the case. This Mrs Elvsted stated blatantly and baldly to Hedda on Mr Tesman’s exit that she was terrified of her – an emotion the average person would surely not admit to so easily and in such a nonchalant manner. This under-execution of fear is also evident in the beginning of Act Two when we compare it with the end of Act One. Mrs Elvsted trembles to Hedda’s touch when Hedda orders she await her lover’s return in her captivity. She states once more that she is terrified of Hedda and that she does not want to stay. Yet, at the beginning of Act Two, Mrs Elvsted is sprawled out upon an armchair with a blanket, seemingly bored yet comfortable…a rather calm conversation then ensues between her and Hedda who lies, unseen, on a white settee. She states that she has been worrying about Lovborg the whole night, but her conduct and apparent comfort might suggest otherwise…, On top of all of this is a moment in Act Two where we see Mrs Elvsted crouching in the corner, Upstage Right. When she enters Centerstage she reveals that she had left and that this entrance is her “return”. This felt simply unpolished and incredible.
The characterisation of the Judge was a very bold one, approximating him closely to what I can only describe as a gentrified cockney man. A broad-shouldered and cocky swagger and a relaxed pronunciation definitely gave him a ‘womaniser’ vibe. However, as this was such a loud and bold decision, in Act Two, one could not help but sense that same anticlimactic feeling worming its way in. The characters all possessed a very tactile relationship with Hedda, pulling and chucking her about in one way or another – another embryonic feature, prematurely relating the present power dynamics – and so the image of the Judge throwing her around once again was less effective. Again, the imagery of it was spectacular, but I could not help but wish for this blood-like liquid to be wine (reminiscent of indulgence, addiction, relaxation), something more symbolic instead of tomato juice in a soda can.
Whilst Juliana seemed bland and Mrs Elvsted, incoherent, Mr Tesman seemed to resemble a stereotype of a loud and abrasive American, having a wild body language and an American accent not fitting in with the rest of the narrative. Again, somewhat incoherent, specifically in relation to Hedda’s pregnancy. When first telling Juliana how much Hedda has “filled out”, he makes clear indications in pointing to her stomach that he knows Hedda is pregnant; yet, when Hedda reveals this to him later on in this play, he is utterly surprised….
Hedda, indeed, seemed excitable and playful – qualities definitely needed for her character – but it was a lack of moments of sincerity or harshness that made her depression and her malice much less poignant, taking away from the complex, fluctuating psychology of her character. That which was most deplorable, however, was her death, one which I can only describe as a pathetic embodiment of a fish. After shooting herself, this Hedda flapped across the stage before suddenly inhaling deeply and becoming motionless. Very unsatisfying for such a tragic demise. Most impressive, however, with Iwuji’s portrayal of Lovborg. For me, the best performer on the stage, capturing devastation, joy, supposition and supplication. The most believable by far!
To conclude, it is evident that the visual and even aromatic textures of this performance were its highlight. Even though some of these images were underdeveloped, the deep symbolism behind them was inherent and satisfying. The characterisation, whilst being strong in some moments, was undermined by an overarching lack of coherence and/or energy. Finally, whilst there were attempts to modernise this play – with modern clothing, intercoms at the door, switches on the walls, all alongside the new version of the script, written by Patrick Marber – I could not notice at all anything specific that related to the modern-day woman, that challenged the themes of the play with a modern perspective. The most modern thing notable in this performance was the use of a Chinese takeaway box which seemed rather out of place with the rest of the action.
“Enjoyable but unsatisfying.”
Photography property of National Theatre London.
Credit: Jan Versweyveld.