Hedda Gabler at The Grand Opera House, York

“I’ve never felt at home,” laments Hedda, a sentiment echoed throughout The National Theatre’s touring production of Hedda Gabler. Indeed, Jan Versweyveld’s construction of the Tesman’s new residence is far from inviting. The deceptively detailed set is delicately unfinished; an open piano bares its mechanisms, light bleeds under walls that don’t quite reach the floor. Nothing is fixed, nothing seems in place. Only when, in a fit of anarchic rage, Hedda staples bouquets of flowers to the walls does the space feel as if it has been lived in.

This feeling of displacement is the core theme of Hove’s production, a focus which draws the play more solidly into a modern context. The struggle between Hedda’s (Lizzy Watts) aristocratic past and bourgeois marriage is of secondary nature. Instead, the fragility of hope seems foregrounded, both as hopes for the future, and those we have of others. What makes these hopes so intoxicating and yet so fragile is the ephemeral nature of them; Hedda insists that Lovberg (Richard Pyros) will wear ‘vine leaves’ in his hair, her hopes pinned to her vision of his beautiful tragedy. Yet such things seem inconsequential to others; all that matters to the intellectuals of the play is Lovberg’s manuscript; that will be his final message.

These delicate touches are drawn into vivid relief by use of design; in a play that highlights the desperate frustration of the protagonist, sound and lighting weave together to create an atmosphere that speaks volumes. The interplay between these two aspects allows the audience to be drawn into Hedda’s consciousness, to feel the raw emotional sweeps and pulsing chaos of her thought process. Loose collections of furniture build to a sense of a life half lived, built in anticipation. And yet at times, this loose set binds together to create a sense of crushing suffocation, matching the confines of her life of convention and the brutal force of control which ultimately drive the narrative.

Pacing was handled expertly in the opening half of the production, moving through the introduction of characters and initial action with impressive energy. The lightness and moments of comedy help let a daunting play breath. Although the second half boasted some of the most engaging sequences, the pace is less well managed, with the occasional gratuitous pauses that serve to disrupt the action. However, the delicious sequence building to the final climax more than makes up for this.

Lizzy Watts combines an almost animalistic physicality with a dryness that outs Hedda as an outcast amongst the stylised cheeriness of her companions. There remains a physical dissonance, a disconnection even at the level of eye contact, a deepening sense of boredom with a life of relative poverty. Relief from apathy comes in the intoxicating scenes between Hedda and Lovberg, Richard Pyros flaunting the dynamism of a tortured genius. Abhin Galeya also shines as the driven Tesman, a refreshingly youthful, enigmatic take on the usually archaic academic. Moments of comedy build a layer of complexity to his relationship with his wife, a gentle chemistry burgeoning a deep sense of humanity afforded to the often maligned characters. In this way, Marber’s translation and Hove’s direction allows for a refreshingly balanced production that breaths naturally in a modern setting. An Ibsen classic without the lethargy such labels might attach, this production is a nuanced, subtle reworking of a masterpiece.

Amy Noriko Ward

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