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Review: Ruth Wilson in Ivo Van Hove's noirish Hedda Gabler, National Theatre

Hedda_header_1200x650The Lyttleton stage is a huge white box just one large window on the left hand side, a video entry screen and two guns in a presentation case adorns one of the walls (and we all know what Chekhov had to say about guns hanging on walls). Furniture is sparse: a grubby white sofa, a piano, piano stool and two chairs one of which is occupied by a maid for most of the play as if she is guarding the entrance or exit. On the floor by the window there are a variety of buckets filled with bunches of fresh flowers.

Hedda (Ruth Wilson) is slumped over the piano, half-heartedly playing snatches of tunes over and over. People reunite around her, excited and happy, her presence is an idea, an ideal and one that we'll soon learn she won't live up to, doesn't want to live up to.

Society, circumstance and choice has led her to this room, in this apartment. She was a catch, admired by many and allowed herself to get caught out of fear of what would happen if she didn't. Her husband Tesman (Kyle Soller) is a moderately successful academic, pleased as punch with his catch but his career is his mistress.

Hedda is a woman boxed in by society and by her choices and her struggle is one of a person in quick sand: the more she struggles the further she sinks. She attempts to exert power and control over the people around her but how much is calculated, a perverse entertainment and how much is a knee-jerk reaction with a petulant disregard for the consequences?

Director Ivo Van Hove has refreshingly cast her husband and her friends and former admirers Judge Brack (Rafe Spall), Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji) and Mrs Elvsted as around the same age so the contrast in freedom and behaviour between the sexes is more evident. The men go off and party and she and Mrs Elvsted (Sinead Matthews) stay at home. The latter is trapped until she can be escorted home by a man.

Hedda preys on people's happiness and achievements and is preyed upon but this isn't a Hedda for whom you can easily find much sympathy. You'd say she had the cold calculation of a sociopath if it wasn't for the glimmers of desperation and regret.

There is much irony at play. She is the victim of a horror story she has herself created. She rejects society's expectations of her sex and status and in doing so pushes away all those who might make her happy. She tries to control and manipulate her landscape but the victories are brief, the satisfaction short-lived and ultimately reinforce how powerless she feels. There is even irony in her final act, the one thing she thinks she can control but even that doesn't turn out quite how she would have imagined.

It is a dark, brooding production in contrast to the bright, stage setting. There is something noirish, almost thriller-esque about the tone that gives this classic play a fresh texture. I'm giving it five stars.

Hedda Gabler is on the Lyttleton Stage at the National Theatre until March 21 and is two hours and forty minutes including an interval.

Other Ivo plays I've seen:

Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo in The Crucible, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York

The epic Kings of War, Barbican Theatre

The elegiac A Song From Far Away, Young Vic

Mark Strong in A View From The Bridge, Young Vic