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Theatre Review: Hedda Gabler @ Lyttleton Theatre


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There’s not much to criticise and everything to praise when it comes to Ruth Wilson’s portrayal of the infamous Hedda Gabler in Ivo van Hove’s modern-dress production of Ibsen’s classic.

The overall production is clear – it is crisp and understandable, and yet harrowing and wrought with human frailty, despair, confusion, humility and embarrassment.

Barefoot and wearing nothing but a silk dress, Hedda’s aesthetic is vulnerable, seductive – but Wilson’s portrayal most certainly is not.

Wilson’s Hedda breaks across the stage like a wrecking ball. Wilson is a storm on the stage – she shakes the characters, the audience and herself. The desolation of Hedda and the perceived bleakness of her newly married life are palpable.

Her calm-before-the-storm demeanour is shaken only occasionally; the uncluttered stage leaves Wilson free to twirl in the occasional show of madness, pinning flowers to the wall without reproach, and crouch despairingly in its oppressive brightness.

The supporting cast consists of Kyle Soller as Tesman, played as a bookish but spritely, bright-eyed and young character. He is clever, potentially a bore (certainly to Hedda) but not a dislikeable character by any means.

Rafe Spall plays Judge Brack and moves from suave, to sleaze, to sinister in the role. Although the overt depiction of his intentions towards Hedda in the closing scene of the play are potentially overwrought, it is a performance that certainly adds to the overall despair of Hedda’s situation.

Chukwudi Iwuji is likeable, nay lovable, as the charismatic, reformed Bohemian academic and writer Lovborg. His draw to Hedda and her power over him is clear. Similarly the amiable and innocent-seeming Mrs Elvsted, played by Sinéad Matthews is a likeable character; but when Hedda is on stage her presence naturally eclipses that of Elvsted.

One of Wilson’s strengths as a performer is her ability to rise above all the other characters on the stage, and yet the audience gets a definite sense that Hedda is shaped by their actions and choices and worries; she allows all the characters to influence her – whether through their acceptance of certain truths and quite simply their humanity. She openly mocks the ‘puny’ things of life and living as a human – money, scandal, embarrassment – yet these are the things she clings too and fears the most; we only see her slip when these threaten to jeopardise her position and power.

It’s like she is constantly on guard, drawing layers around herself – yet consistently slipping and exposing her core: a soul in crisis. Self-destructive, she is jealous of those with a purpose until she finds her own in the shattering final scene.

As Wilson’s Hedda wavers between deliberate action and a loss of control, the scale slowly tipping against her favour, the audience watches her lose herself to a prison of her own making, the lighting changed from warmth to a cool, cold blue and finally a hellish blaze of red, the play closes to what is a truly remarkable end.

Hedda Gabler will run at the Lyttleton Theatre. It will be broadcast live to cinemas on March 9th 2017.

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