Image: Lizzy Watts (Hedda Gabler) in Hedda Gabler. Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
By Dani Watson
‘Just married. Buried alive. Hedda longs to be free…’
First staged in 1891, Henrik Ibsen’s story of a woman trapped by marriage and societal expectations translates easily, or perhaps uneasily, into present day. The headstrong daughter of an army general, Hedda Gabler (Lizzy Watts) is about to reach her aesthetic expiry date at the age of twenty something and must quickly marry if she wishes to maintain the privileged lifestyle in which she is accustomed.
Her new husband Tesman (Abhin Galeya), a bland but promising academic, provides luxury in the form of a gilded cage. There are no doors on this set – the actors enter and exit via the auditorium, except for Hedda who paces the stage like a caged animal. She is already there, hunched over her piano, before the first and second act begins along with Berte (Madlena Nedva), her maid and pseudo prison guard. Berte is permanent fixture on stage, part watchman and part accomplice of the protagonist who is never granted the luxury of solitude.
What Hedda craves is a purpose, but the only purpose afforded to her is child bearing – a prospect she despises even more than the lifelong marriage to her limp husband. Her biological clock ticks away in the background like a time bomb, with her husband regularly inspecting her body for signs of much awaited pregnancy. She is a trophy wife, put on display like her father’s guns in the cabinet on the wall. One of the few props in this minimalist set, they are the closest thing to power that Hedda holds and a foreshadowing of what becomes of women who defy their male counterparts.
Hedda is quickly losing control of her circumstances and her body. If she is denied power, she will settle for destruction. The return of former school mate Mrs Elvsted (Annabel Bates) and an ex loveinterest Ejlert Lovborg (Richard Pyros) shake up the mundanity of married life. Hedda searches for control in the manipulation of others and finds it with devastating consequences.
Hedda Gabler is an iconic character in theatre, unwaveringly provocative and often compared to a female Hamlet. Ivo van Hove’s direction casts Hedda in a more sympathetic light than she is usually accustomed, with Lizzy Watts’ performance exploiting every contradictory layer of this intriguing character. It would be quite easy to portray Hedda as a simplistic sadist, but in this production the protagonist is both contemptable and understandable. The boxed-in set works perfectly to underpin Hedda’s isolation, complimented by lighting which is used sparingly. The final act sees Tesman boarding up the windows with a power drill, as if to drill the final nail in the protagonist’s coffin. The performance ends, quite suitably, in darkness.
Hedda Gabler is a National Theatre production touring at the Theatre Royal Newcastle from 13th – 17th February. Under 26s can nab a ticket for a very reasonable £5 via the Theatre Royal box office on 08448 112121. Ts & Cs apply, subject to availability. Don’t miss out!