So what do we think about Hedda Gabler, then? Is she a woman who’s been unfairly backed into an inescapable corner, or is she a bona fide psychopath? Either way, it’s an interesting question – it’s tempting to wonder what an audience would have thought in 1890, but in Ivo van Hove’s new production of Patrick Marber’s adaptation, well, it’s tempting to veer towards option B.
It’s an odd fish, this production of Hedda Gabler. On the one hand, it’s extremely visually striking: a comparatively bare set, strewn with flowers, an unforgiving concrete box with exit only possible via the audience. Tom Gibbons’s subtle but effective sound design heaps on the tension, even if the choice of pre-recorded singing seems a strange one. Other decisions are less explicable – Berta, the maid, is onstage for the entire play with practically nothing to do. Characters pace around the stage in conversation in a way that feels less like prowling, or even anxious pacing, and more like a distraction. It’s hard to get an emotional handle on any of them – which is not to say that characters need to be likeable or open books to be worth watching, just that it’s hard to get a handle on them. For all that Lizzy Watts’s caustic Hedda is fun to watch, it’s hard to feel any emotional pull towards her. I don’t believe that blackmailing judge Brack (Adam Best) is a threat until the final few scenes, by which point it’s hard to feel the shocking dehumanising of the final confrontation as strongly as it was clearly intended to be. And even that final confrontation seems to shy away from the emotional impact in favour of physical violence. It seems like a missed opportunity.
The best moments come from the characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves – Richard Pyros as Ernst Lovborg plays his ultimate downfall touchingly, and Annabel Bates is sympathetic as the wallflower Mrs Elvested.
I feel like I’m sat here complaining to you that this play about emotionally closed-off characters is too emotionally closed-off to me. The truth is that it’s just a little bit anaemic. There’s not quite enough emotional heart to hang the rest off, and without that, it’s hard to get caught up in what’s going on.
For more on the Festival and King’s Theatre programme click here.