“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” These words from Albert Camus’ essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), although penned in mid-twentieth century France, are as relevant to Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1891) as they are to French existentialism. Often regarded as “the female Hamlet”, Hedda Gabler is a powerful exploration of what it truly means to be alive. Hedda ponders the choice of actions with which she is faced now the myriad opportunities of her youth have faded away; becoming more and more constrained by outside forces – namely marriage, money, and potential motherhood – she begins to consider drastic actions in order to return a feeling of control to her life. Director Ivo Van Hove’s modern take on this ever-intriguing play is showing at the National’s Lyttleton Theatre until the 21st of March and offers a gripping new telling of a story that has been told and retold for over a century.
The first thing to note about this production is its staging. The entirety of the Lyttleton Theatre’s stage has been fashioned into one massive room; the walls are bare white except for Hedda’s (Ruth Wilson) two inherited pistols – displayed in a case built in to the back wall – and a fire extinguisher – also contained in an alcove in the back wall. In an early passionate outburst against her boredom with married life, Hedda festoons the entire stage with flowers sent to welcome her and her husband, George Tesman (Kyle Soller), to their new matrimonial home. This action results in an explosion of colour, which serves to emphasise the dull and monochrome nature of the walls that constrain Hedda, and from which she sees little possibility of escape. The few other permanent fixtures on stage include Hedda’s stripped-back upright piano and Berte (Éva Magyar), the servant who sits diligently in the corner of the room throughout the majority of the play when she is not directly involved in the action. Berte’s constant presence adds a metatheatrical reminder to the audience: highlighting our own position as spectators of the Tesman household, and also leaving to consider for ourselves exactly how much knowledge of the characters Berte gleans in her stoic silence, and the extent to which this knowledge impacts her few interventions in the play.
These things are all present in Van Hove’s production, but one notable absence in this modernist reimagining of Hedda Gabler is the portrait of General Gabler. A painted image of Hedda’s father, from whom she inherited her beloved pistols, usually looms over the action of the play, giving a slightly different representation of spectatorship than that presented by the constant presence of Berthe on the Lyttleton stage. This new translation of the play by Patrick Marber appears to have written out Hedda’s patriarch completely – apart from one mention by Judge Brack (Rafe Spall) – and the result is a much more intense focus on the psychological tribulations of the newly married Hedda, played absolutely exceptionally by Ruth Wilson, and her struggles with the men she seeks to control in order to give her life some purpose.
Wilson manages to make Hedda as manipulative and desperate as the character should be, especially in the central events detailing her destruction of old flame Eilert Lovborg and his devotee Thea Elvsted (Chukwudi Iwuji and Sinéad Matthews), but she also elicits genuine laughter from the audience throughout the play. Predominantly these comic moments are created by her treatment of her uninspiring new husband and his aunt Juliana (Kate Duchêne), and through her early combative conversations with the lecherous and sinister Judge Brack. Wilson (Hedda) and Spall (Brack) play off against each other absolutely magnificently, and it is the shift in power dynamics between Hedda and Brack that defines both the play and Hedda’s struggle against the realities of her life more generally. As Brack’s power over her becomes more complete, the comic moments dissipate and the existential anxiety that has been consuming Hedda throughout the play comes to its climax. In their final scene together colour again returns to Hedda’s surroundings, but only in the form of a blood-red liquid Brack drinks, pours on the floor, and spits on Hedda’s white dress. Spall’s portrayal of Brack at this moment is one of the most menacing things I have ever seen on a theatre stage, and the entire audience, through Wilson’s mesmerising performance, feels Hedda’s terror of the life that awaits her were she to choose to keep living.
There is far more that I could say about this gripping production; for instance, Iwuji’s performance as Lovborg, another character for whom the very act an purpose of living becomes a central issue, is compelling and provides a perfect platform for Wilson to explore Hedda’s talent for manipulation. Also the choice to play Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” in Hedda’s reflective moments between scenes is intelligent and affective. However, it is through the verbal jousting between Hedda and Brack that this production gains its true power. She may have no lengthy soliloquys, but through the dialogue between these characters Ibsen manages to bring the central question of existence to life in his female counterpoint to Denmark’s famous prince. In one of their first interactions Hedda says to Brack, “I’ve no talent for life, there’s nothing”, and there’s the rub: she has to decide if such a life has any value; Ruth Wilson’s portrayal of Hedda at this moment of crisis is powerful, moving, and not to be missed.
 Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, (trans. Justin O’Brien, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975). 11.