They say you should never meet your idols. Perhaps a similar note of caution should be extended to seeing favourite characters depicted onstage. Because, as with Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre, there’s always the possibility a director or writer will have chosen to do something unspeakably vile to them.
The Hedda in Ivo van Hove’s staging of Patrick Marber’s new version of the text is not the same Hedda as in previous productions of Henrik Ibsen’s play. She is also not the same Hedda that I, when younger, felt an affinity with or took any interest in. I mention this, entirely indulgently, because female characters of a certain kind (the complex, messy, depressive, flawed ones) are hard to come by, and when they do it matters that, well, it almost just matters they exist.
The play is updated to a modern setting. This immediately creates certain problems. On a simple level it means that parts of the dialogue jar, for example an exchange between Hedda (Ruth Wilson) and Thea Elvsted (Sinéad Matthews) where the former – probably disingenuously – suggests that as school chums they called each other “by our Christian names”. Spoken as a reminiscence from within a room designed by fans of the White Cube gallery, this reads like a clumsy anachronism left in from Ibsen that was somehow forgotten in the updating process.
On a more integrally problematic level, the modern setting immediately erases one way of understanding the character of Hedda. Without the historical context – or a comparable nuanced alternative – the idea of Hedda as both a product of the stifling society she resides in and as a woman kicking (clumsily) against it is lost. Trying to understand Hedda without her backdrop is like trying to understand Betty Friedan’s housewives without their closeted 1950s American lifestyles. Or it’s like trying to fathom what is wrong with Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar without Ladies’ Day magazine and Rosenbergs. Or, if you want an even more pertinent example, it’s like trying to get to the root of Nora Helmer’s problems in Ibsen’s own A Doll’s House without the claustrophobic domestic setting of the titular infantilising home.
By removing the idea of Hedda as locked in a rigid situation and lifestyle that has contributed to her making decisions that were ultimately wrong for her, we firstly lose part of the dramatic tension – these modern versions of Hedda and Thea don’t need to be housewives or housekeepers; the fact that they are is actually quite incongruous with the era they live in. Getting a divorce, for example, would not be a scandal and getting a career would be pretty much expected.
Secondly, it deducts a significant aspect of sympathy for Hedda and her unhappiness. The portrayal of Hedda here is singularly unsympathetic. Her problems are all her own making – the idea of her as a ‘coward’ is repeated – and stem from narcissism, greed and jealousy. At one almost comical moment her mental anguish is literally reduced to being the result of not getting a pony. She’s a posh daddy’s girl set on destroying those around her including the super-dooper nicey-nice Thea (who we know is nice because she dresses in all the colours of the ice cream stall).
Not only is she to blame for her ennui – which is here misunderstood as to simply mean ‘boredom’ in the most everyday sense – but she is not entitled to it. She has, after all, everything a woman could want: a show-off flat, paint cans full of flowers (Ok, she can’t seemingly afford a vase, but what of it) and a pretty silk dress. She even has – and this is an upgrade for Mrs Tesman as often depicted – a husband (Kyle Soller) who is actually all right. He’s not her senior by miles or a bumbling old fart with more interest in putting his head in books that between her legs. He’s actually a sleek young academic – the next big thing – who eschews ‘Auntie Ju-Ju’ for ‘Aunt J’ (Kate Duchêne, who is changed into an almost saintly figure preaching the importance of love and humanity, rather than depicted as a cloying busybody interfering in their marriage as in other versions of the play). He perches neatly behind her on the sofa, running his hands over her bare shoulders. The message is: what exactly is Hedda’s problem?
It’s a message that plays on the depressive’s biggest source of guilt. Hedda, more than anyone, may well be aware that she has no ‘real’ reason for wanting to put a bullet in her own brain. She has, as everyone keeps saying, good looks and a good home. She is the walking personification of Privilege. Even her love for Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji) is significantly devalued by the way the Hedda is apparently interested in sleeping with all the men who come onstage – including the sadistic Brack (Rafe Spall). Gone is any suggestion that Lovborg is someone Hedda’s very soul aches for, and in its place is a cheap lust.
All of which would almost be excusable – so this isn’t Hedda as I understood her, but each to their own – were it not for the deeply unpleasant final scene between Hedda and Brack. It’s interesting that Hedda Gabler is sometimes referred to as ‘the female Hamlet’ in reference to it being a seminal role for actors. Yet it’s almost impossible to imagine a staging of Shakespeare’s play in which the Prince of Denmark, as played by a leading actor in one of the nation’s top theatres, is thrown to the ground, and physically and ritualistically humiliated for his perceived sins. The imagery and symbolism at the end of this play is repugnant – and all the more inexcusably so given that it is the addition of a new staging, not even the troubles of an original text.
As is often the case when you come across this type of gratuitous misogyny, I left the theatre not feeling animated to scream out an angry feminist polemic, but with this horrible sadness and a peculiar sense of profound disconnect from numerous other humans making their way around this same planet Earth. I left, as it happens, with a visceral reminder of what had originally attracted me to Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.
Hedda Gabler is on at the National Theatre until 21st March 2017. Click here for more details.