Tré Ventour reviews Hedda Gabler at Royal & Derngate…
Bound by the constraints of holy matrimony to an aspiring academic, Hedda Gabler (Lizzy Watts) fights against patriarchal conventions and shudders at the idea of motherhood. She is confined within the walls of an apartment, a fantastic motif for her psychological torment and the hollowness of her soul.
As the proud daughter of a general, she lusts for money and power in order to demonstrate her importance. However, instead she must settle, demoted to controlling others through lies and manipulation.
When it comes to Hedda Gabler this young arts critic is a newbie. I have seen many compelling performances on stage and screen, and Lizzy Watts as Hedda has joined the throng. Engagingly toxic, Hedda reminded me of Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan in Luther. Coincidently, Wilson also played Gabler at the National Theatre before it went on tour.
Gabler demands that suicide be beautiful. It’s all about the delivery and not the execution (pun intended). From curtain up, when she’s face down on the piano, she’s showing her contempt for everything and everyone around her; all without uttering a word. Anger has tainted her. She is addicted to despair and she’s a hot mess of a psychopath.
First performed in 1891 (written by Henrik Ibsen) but newly adapted by Patrick Marber and directed by Ivo van Hove, Hedda Gabler is a delight. The set (Jan Versweyveld) is a slick white box. Minimalist – and it’s unpleasant to look at, but that’s the point. Often making me feel uneasy like I was with McMurphy on the ward with Ratched.
Watts’ face is overly nice, right up until the very end when she takes her bow, drenched with blood. Costume, hair and makeup are great, as is the pacing. Originally written in Victorian times with a period attire throughout, van Hove has done away with corsets and its ilk in an effort to give it a twenty-first century makeover.
Never have I seen a play that relies on sound as much as this. You don’t really notice when it’s playing but as soon as it stops, you do. An out-of-tune piano plays as an accompaniment to some of the dialogue, frequently slotting itself between words as well. Hedda Gabler’s use of technology is good but it’s inconsistent. The video intercom is a nice touch but why is the photo album not digitalised as well? No phones or computers either? If you’re going to be modern, you should be modern. If you’re going to be dated, be dated. Choose one and stick to it.
Watts plays the alluring Hedda, the femme fatale, like Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca or de Havilland’s Rachel in My Cousin Rachel (based on the du Maurier novels). She was very good at writing these sorts characters. They are toxic individuals that you can’t help but like because of their sarcasm and wicked quips.
Screen allusions aside, Hedda was more of a take-for-take of Edna in Kate Chopin’s late Victorian novel, The Awakening, a tale about a woman who was at odds with those the men made the rules and the oppressive system which they governed her by.
The supporting cast is also very good, with Adam Best giving an excellent performance as beefcake Brack who sees Hedda for who really she is. Furthermore, we have her husband (Abhin Galeya), her aunt (Christine Kavanagh), her maid (Madlena Nedeva), Lovborg (Richard Pyros) and Mrs Elvstead (Annabel Bates), all of whom are played to perfection for the duration.
The stage is oppressive. It oppresses Hedda and by extension, the audience is detached, perpetuating this very dystopian (yet not) aura. Perfectly suited to the vast Derngate space, it is juxtaposed to the claustrophobic conditions that Hedda Gabler depicts.
In a contemporary and seemingly progressive society where we think we can do anything, Hedda is a walking Freudian slip and the play itself is a love letter to The Creative. Great artists are not peaceful souls and genius comes at a price, a sentiment that both they and Hedda Gabler have in common.
You can buy tickets via the Royal & Derngate website or by phoning 01604 624811.