Ruth Wilson and Rafe Spall in 'Hedda Gabler'
Ruth Wilson and Rafe Spall in 'Hedda Gabler' © Jan Versweyveld

Together at last: Henrik Ibsen and Joni Mitchell. Ivo van Hove’s production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler for the National Theatre includes several excerpts of Mitchell’s “Blue” (as well as Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” and Nina Simone’s of “Wild Is the Wind”) to emphasise the focus on relationships rather than individual personalities. This is not a production about Hedda’s character, her impulses and flaws, but about her interaction with everyone else.

Ruth Wilson’s Hedda is not the familiar fiery, uncontrollable figure of arrogance; on the contrary, she spends a lot of the time buttoned up. One can see the bitterness and discontent, but also a sense of circumscription and confinement which is almost a natural process. Patrick Marber’s precise, deliberate version has her describe her marriage to the uninteresting Tesman thus: “I needed to settle [down]; I settled for him.” Kyle Soller’s Tesman, too, is far from the usual tweedy nerd; he’s simply fundamentally insufficient for Hedda. And as for Judge Brack — normally portrayed as a middle-aged sexual opportunist who takes an opportunity too many — here Rafe Spall is an exact contemporary of the Tesmans, and is moreover sinister and repeatedly physically abusive. In van Hove’s vision, it is not Hedda’s over-involvement with her old flame Eilert Lovborg (the underrated Chukwudi Iwuji) that propels her downfall, but Brack’s uncaring predations.

Jan Versweyfeld’s set is his characteristic blend of minimalism and detail: a stark loft-style apartment with virtually no furniture, save an upright piano to link with the Mitchell song’s arrangement and occasional discrete notes heard at other times. But it does contain several buckets of flowers for the newly returned Tesman, flowers which Hedda later flings around the stage and even staples to the walls. There are no doors; characters enter and exit through the fourth wall. Crucially, this means that at the close of the play Hedda cannot viably retreat offstage for her final breakdown and suicide, and so it occurs onstage almost in a blind spot between the other characters’ gazes.

Van Hove may overdo the Brack-is-to-blame perspective, but his stripped-down approach, with a baseline of near-screen naturalism until particular intensity is required, works beautifully at reinvigorating Ibsen.

To March 21, nationaltheatre.org.uk

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