Ruth Wilson Is A Desperate Housewife In Hedda Gabler
As the latest starry take on Hedda Gabler proves, Norway's contribution to London life this season may amount to more than just a controversial Christmas tree.
Love is never easy to find, keep or sustain. American satirist Ambrose Bierce described it as "a temporary insanity curable by marriage", a sentiment that Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen would likely have agreed with.
Ibsen's morbid meditation on marriage is one of the all-time classic dramas and its eponymous female protagonist is up there in the 'bored women raging against the patriarchy' stakes with Lulu and Madame Bovary. When we first meet her, Gabler's marriage isn't the happiest: she's settled for the dullest man around, her ex is back on the scene and she's reduced to flirting with a family friend with his own agenda.
The latest outing of this nihilistic poster child for promiscuity is in capable hands both onstage and off. Sporting the best pout in Britain, Ruth Wilson has transcended her origins as Luther's sociopathic sidekick to win an award for her role in HBO's acclaimed The Affair. She takes on the title role here opposite Rafe Spall as Judge Brack, the only character who matches Hedda in terms of depravity and sexual ambition.
Belgian director Ivo von Hove is the latest theatre wunderkind to be let loose in London. His View From A Bridge won prizes aplenty, not least a hat-trick of Oliviers and a deuce of Tonys while his work on David Bowie musical Lazarus was the best thing about that disaster and the only reason it earned its solitary star from us. This is a man who can create a single six-hour Dutch-language production which gangbangs together three of Shakespeare's plays into one much-anticipated whole.
The final big name is comedian and writer Patrick Marber. As well as being part of the cast of the seminal satire The Day Today, he was the man behind the no-holds-barred play Closer and its BAFTA-winning screen adaptation. Given his earlier work, it is no surprise that he was attracted to Ibsen's brutal excoriation of failed relationships, dishonesty and betrayal.
Is Hedda Gabler more than the sum of its parts? Not really. Everyone puts in a decent shift but there are questions in every department.
She starts out dressed in a dark dressing gown over a white night dress, a visual clue to her state of mind, especially in the second act when she throws off the gown as her black plans begin to come together. They say some people just want to watch the world burn; Wilson's Hedda is the kind to bring her own flamethrower to a party. She fiercely demonstrates the right blend of ennui, immorality, deceitfulness and — all too late — self-awareness. Hedda's frustration, rage and struggle with "engagement, marriage, honeymoon and whatever hell comes next" is made all too real but she only engages us in fits and bursts.
The supporting cast around her do well to enliven their characters but the men seem to be miscast — as her blinkered husband Tesman, Kyle Soller makes little emotional impact while Spall's Brack is appropriately louche but rarely a threatening figure until the final furlong. Chukwudi Iwuji's Lovborg — arguably this play's most tragic figure — deals well with the darker elements of the story but doesn't convince otherwise.
Marber's intelligent script has a few modern phrases like "good point, well made" but no-one whips out their mobile phone to tweet about their existential misery. Von Hove's direction is subtler than in Lazarus but still provides dramatic fireworks especially in an explosive finale which sees Brack pouring blood over a defeated Gabler from a soft drinks can. The superb use of incidental music and tracks like Cat Power's cover of Joni Mitchell’s Blue adds depth and pathos. Some of the scenes, though, are limper than week-old lettuce, something which Marber and von Hove are both at fault for.
By the end, one is left feeling that the play is much like Gabler's husband: despite all the talent and the promise, it could have done so much better for itself.
Hedda Gabler continues at the National Theatre until 21 March 2017. More information can be found on the official website. Londonist attended on an official press ticket.
Last Updated 19 December 2016