Hedda Gabler is at home. Again. Always. Ivo van Hove’s stark and self-conscious staging of Ibsen’s drama “Hedda Gabler,” a National Theater remount of the production that played New York back in 2004, imprisons her in an empty flat: an art-wife on display in a gallery home. Ruth Wilson’s languid Hedda refuses that role, but she never finds another, and in that, van Hove (“A View from the Bridge,” “The Crucible”) treats her with all of Ibsen’s ambivalence: sympathizing with the trapped housewife but scorning the kept woman. Why, he asks, doesn’t she pull a Nora? Why doesn’t Hedda Gabler make more of herself?
His is a clinical evaluation of a difficult play. Though it brings the action into the present, this isn’t just an update of Ibsen, or one that finds Hedda as she exists in our world. It’s slyer than that, and more self-aware. Rather than smoothing Ibsen’s text into contemporary speech, Patrick Marber’s new version honors the original: strangely stiff, slightly formal and vaguely unsettling as a result. The people are recognizable but also off-kilter. They exist in a play — actors in character on a stage — and Van Hove’s calculated choreography never loses sight of that. This isn’t a hot “Hedda,” but a chilled slow-burn. Ibsen on ice. Hedda on the rocks.
Jan Versweyveld’s design boxes her up. The Tesmans’ new home, Hedda’s reward for settling, is an empty flat, not just unfurnished but unfinished. It’s a white plasterboard shell, hostile and harsh, all “light and space” as her new husband insists. It’s his house, his rules. And she rebels by staple-gunning flowers to the walls — an act of almost violent beauty.
Squint, though, and the space is something else too. It’s a minimalist gallery: two guns in a display case, a fire extinguisher on the wall and Berte the maid (Éva Magyar) sat like an attendant guard. Van Hove frames Hedda herself as an artwork: the sort of wife an ambitious young academic like Kyle Soller’s Tesman ought to have. He shows her off accordingly, his prize objet d’heart, and he bores her dreadfully. Stuck at home with a piano, she resembles a performance artist making a show of her passivity. Of course, by the end, the guns are bound to come out.
This is where Van Hove ultimately damns her: Wilson’s Hedda is a willing captive. Other characters enter from the auditorium, but while she’s stuck up onstage, she never once tries to leave it. Instead, she stays at home in her night slip, sexily swanning about, “Blue” as the Joni Mitchell’s song that slinks through the action. She turns saboteur out of frustration and ennui, but she might have got dressed and done something positive instead. As it is, van Hove never lets us lose sight of Hedda’s privilege, nor the indulgence of her insistence on beauty and a life “free from all ugliness.”
Wilson’s mercurial in the role, swaggering and sharp, but she’s a woman weighed down too. Bored stiff by her husband, an awful mansplainer, she’s exhilarated by Rafe Spall’s buff Judge Brack – an establishment thug if ever there was one — and at her most open with Chukwudi Iwuji’s brilliant Lovborg. Beneath it all, though, there’s a glint of nihilism.
It’s all richly theatrical, a strong reading translated into a full staging. It’s full of oddities that sit just out of reach: Spall’s accent slides in and out, posh to rough, and Soller does a quick jig. The action stills into statuesque postures: active men and passive female bodies. It’s a mark, in the end, that Hedda’s at home onstage: the sort of strong woman we sometimes see in art, but not in the world. By the end, blackmailed by Brack, roughed up and drenched in tomato juice by Spall, she hasn’t overhauled the system that hems her in. She’s only angered it.