A crucial manuscript isn’t all that burns in Richard Eyre’s terrific revival of “Hedda Gabler,” which proves great plays can be revealed anew without needing to be wrenched showily out of context, as has happened in other recent “Heddas” on both sides of the Atlantic. Sparked by yet another impassioned turn from fast-rising thesp Eve Best in the title role, the production joins “Don Carlos” and Katie Mitchell’s “Dream Play” in what is turning out to be a banner season in Blighty for reappraisals of the great works. (Producer Robert Fox has first dibs on a West End transfer.)
A great work is, of course, what Ibsen’s 1890 play remains, though it’s equally interesting how often “Hedda” can disappoint. It’s partly because productions focused on compulsively bored characters risk ennui themselves, while too many “Heddas” devolve into one-woman displays of personality featuring a pistol-packing heroine who, for all intents and purposes, could be a Nordic Annie Oakley.
Not here. In what seems a logical follow-up to her astonishing Lavinia two seasons ago in the National’s “Mourning Becomes Electra,” Best gives us the “big girl” described by Judge Brack (Iain Glen) who exists in thrall to emotions too outsized for the stifling circumstances in which recent newlywed Hedda Gabler Tesman finds herself.
Her spouse is the bookish, fundamentally kind George Tesman (Benedict Cumberbatch) — a “good, decent, trusting” chap unfortunate enough to have chosen a spouse whose lexicon hasn’t made much room for those particular adjectives.
What Hedda wants instead is the combustible excitement promised by Eilert Loevborg (Jamie Sives), whom our heroine describes in much the same ripely romantic imagery that Shakespeare’s Cleopatra uses to extol her Antony. Complicating factors is the wily, silken Brack. Recovered from his bizarre Stanley in the National’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” to give his finest stage perf to date, Glen plays the Judge as a co-conspirator with Hedda. Remarking in act two on the excitement that goes with “being devious,” Glen cuts a Brack whose perhaps unwitting destiny is to help the only other character as smart as he is to prompt her awful, if no less inevitable, end.
Far more than usual, the play works as a roundelay of displaced affection and unconsummated desire. (Small wonder that someone’s literary output can be their “baby,” especially when, as is clear here, Hedda is consumed by the prospect of the pregnancy indicated by her Aunt Juliana’s constantly leading talk of “news.”)
Hedda’s fate, as we know, is to possess a clarity that is virtually lethal, however existentially it is underpinned. Undone by “all this absurdity,” Hedda can be cruelly mocking of others but is hardest on herself: to wit, her craving for a “beautifully” achieved death that, when it is finally realized in a brilliant coup de theatre from Eyre, could scarcely be bloodier.
Eyre’s new version of the text is particularly strong on the ironies and multiple insinuations that course through this play, and it is easily colloquial and contemporary-sounding without recourse to modern-day infelicities.
Whereas one envisions the play engulfed in visual gloom, Peter Mumford’s witty lighting makes elegant use of the very rays of sun Hedda seems to regard as a personal affront. Rob Howell’s set, at the same time, keeps the portrait of the fearsome General Gabler in hazy view at the back of an elegantly appointed stage.
Not all the performances reap comparable dividends. While a Scottish-accented Loevborg gives an intriguingly nationalist tinge to the rivalry between Hedda’s suitors past and present, film actor Sives (“Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself”) possesses neither the “spark” nor the “flicker” that he makes much of in conversation with Hedda. As Hedda’s former schoolmate Thea Elvsted, a jittery Lisa Dillon seems to be struggling to keep pace with Best.
Though it may seem odd to think of Chekhov in comparison with the seemingly more upholstered world of Ibsen, this “Hedda” has a Chekhovian ability to see people whole, starting with Tesman, whom Cumberbatch generously plays as, indeed, kind and decent rather than the customary dithering twit.
As with any fine production, Eyre’s strategy is to expand on the play’s contradictions rather than close them off, making us no less fevered in our responses than the ever-shifting Hedda. Quick to deride “the fantasy rubbish” of her ideal home, Hedda wastes no time constructing alternative visions pertaining to vine leaves, eros and a near-orgasmic demise. That last event draws a gasp from the audience, as well it should: This is arguably the first “Hedda” to show how, for some people, sex and death are one.