hedda gabler

blog for January 25, 2017


I saw Hedda Gabler this week, at the National Theatre, in London, and it is the major reason I came on this theatre tour arranged by the Stratford Festival.

I must say the arrangements are wonderful. Yesterday we were taken (by bus) for lunch at  a country estate, about 3000 acres of land, accommodating horse breeding and tenant farming, this one in the same family (allowing for some morganatic descent) since the Domesday Book (16th century) and a neighbour of HighClere (aka Downton Abbey). This was a private negotiation through a family friend; the owners do not cater to tourists as a source of income. Lovely to visit and lunch was delicious but I wouldn’t want to live that life. How blessed we are!

I had seen Ibsen’s play twice before, set in a stuffed 19th century atmosphere, stifling enough to justify Hedda’s malaise. I had read of the Dutch director, Ivo van Tove, and his stunning , innovative directing style (Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, in New York last year, and then available on National Theatre cinema this past season),  and I wanted to see what he did/does with Hedda.  It’s not only the directing, of course it’s the set and design and script.  Written in 1890, the play was a powerful piece of 19th century realism and Hedda became the female Hamlet role..

It is said that every age must translate for itself, and we tend to tinker with old scripts in English, too (except, of course, Shakespeare!),  but respect often leaves a script smelling kind of musty or stale. Not this version of Hedda Gabler (2016)  by Patrick Marber (English, 1964).  I bought a copy but haven’t had a chance to read it yet, so I will probably have to report again when I have done so.  What I saw was very much driven by van Tove but I think he and Merber developed their view of the play along the same wave length.  VanTove had directed HeddaGabler twice before in New York and Amsterdam and he wanted his previous productions to accord with Marber’s script.. Marber says van Tove sketched the set deign and asked the playwright to write a script that would work for a modern-dress production in an almost empty space but that  “could, in theory, be performed in period costume on a realistic set.”  No updating, no slang, some editing (cutting?), some re-ordering of dialogue but “no further liberties.”

As I said, I haven’t read the script yet, but the production I saw was tight, gripping, harrowing, moving and modern.  (So was Ibsen!)  All theatre, as you know, is collaborative, so I must acknowledge the fine acting by the cast. We were privileged to listen to the actor Ruth Wilson, who played Hedda,  in a pre-performance interview (ticketed) , talk about her work and preparation.  Asked what was her chief direction given her by van Tove, she said that he told her to do what I always thought Brian Bedford used to do to perfection:  to act – no, behave – as if every move and thought or speech had just occurred to her/him.  I think that’s what made her so scary. You never  knew what she was going to do next.

I’m leaving now for another play. Anon, anon.