I have a feeling that the litmus test for finding out if an actor is any good is if you believe them when they make a threat. In other words, if they threaten to break somebody’s face, I’d better believe them, or I will become incredibly bored incredibly quickly. Thankfully, when Ruth Wilson’s Hedda declares ‘I’m going to set your hair on fire,’ you believe her. It’s mildly alarming.
In Ivo Van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler (my first, incidentally,) what could be calculated, removed and inevitable is made impulsive and dangerous. I don’t often leave a theatre shaking. Or with tomato juice on my trousers, to be perfectly honest. The text is made visceral in the moment by a cast that is without a weak link, on a stark, blank concrete stage, suggestive of a hospital ward, or the white out of a snowstorm. Against this canvas is thrown Hedda, a thoroughly bored, clever, sarcastic, arguably wicked woman. She clearly hates herself, and there’s a (self?) destructive impulse in her internal make up. She’s fascinating to watch, enhanced by Ruth Wilson’s acerbic, witty performance. It’s always a privilege to watch an actor jump off a cliff.
It can be far more interesting to watch someone act on the verge of panic, that it is to watch someone act panicked. Ruth Wilson gives you both. There is a moment at the end of act three, where she spins across the stage, an act of pure freedom, liberation even. She’s about to burn the manuscript, a singularly wicked act, but there’s almost a joy in it – I’m not going to call her a psychopath, because her freedom is not so much in the wickedness, but in the fact she has the agency to do anything at all. I think it’s a mistake to say that she is manipulative, because it seems to imply she has a long game, or some sort of objective view. She does not. Everything she does is improvised, something she decides to do in the moment, and then chases where it leads her. It is no surprise then, that Hedda’s final act is one of determination, and after all, she has always taken solace in gunmetal.
She constantly shifts the goalposts, making it awkward for people in an annoying way, as opposed to outright malicious. Where does her request for a horse come from? When she laments about the horse, Tesman and Hedda are sat next to each other on a sofa. They talk to the opposite wall, not to each other. Whatever intimacy may be longed for is lost in the vastness of the space. Tesman seems to be gritting his teeth, Hedda seems to be rather enjoying playing the mopey wife, chameleonic as she is. And still, in the huge, empty, cold room, the walls looking like a washed-out Rothko, she is furiously seeking romance. She corrects somebody’s language, she doesn’t mean day and night, she means ‘always and eternally.’ It’s more floral.
Speaking of which, she is immune to the superficial romance of existence, which is nonetheless where she chooses to exist. She trashes the bouquets of flowers, throwing them violently across the space, then slamming them into the walls with a staple gun. It’s a startling moment, the first indication that this woman is capable of acts more violent in nature than a well-placed barb aimed at a relative. She is deeply nihilistic; if the manuscript is, as Lovborg says, ‘the future,’ then she has burned exactly that. Moreover, there seems a total jealousy of Mrs Elvsted, Hedda’s mirror in every way. Elvsted has left her husband and has chosen to live deeply. The contrast is heightened by the costuming; Hedda in a nude slip, Mrs Elvsted in a sort of knitted dress with colourful stripes. And there’s the whole thing with Lovborg that I’m still trying to unpick.
Basically, Hedda is brilliant. I kinda love her.
It’s probably this that makes the final act so utterly upsetting to watch. It’s without doubt one of the most profoundly upsetting things I’ve ever seen on a stage. Even if you don’t like Hedda, she is fascinating, so I’m sure some sort of affection crops up between her and the audience. Particularly when she’s done the worst thing imaginable, burnt a man’s hope and then sent him to his death, she comes to a sort of stop. She seems at peace, completely clear. Watching this woman’s last remaining agency get torn away from her is heart-breaking.
The staging of the sequence where Judge Brack informs her of what has really happened to Lovborg has been given a lot of coverage. It involves Brack dribbling a can of tomato juice down the front of Hedda’s slip, before spitting a whole mouthful of the stuff over the side of her face. He then empties the rest of the can on the floor, and pushes her down into it. Not quite finished, he shakes whatever is left in the can over her back (stalls A25 is in the splash zone, by the way.) Hedda is left brutalised, hair matted, completely ruined by the encounter. She, not surprisingly, is appalled by this man holding power over her, and after seeking satisfaction in one last barb by mispronouncing Mrs Elvsted’s name, shoots herself. It is, like Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, a very violent death. Apparently Van Hove told Wilson to ‘die like a fish.’ That’s certainly what it looks like. It is a production entirely without sentiment; I found it interesting that I never thought of it as a modern dress production, rather it is without period entirely, but with a sort of sick realism to it nonetheless, and that’s not just because I have the same jeans as Lovborg.
The production is made into the maid’s memory play; there is a sense that we are watching the maid’s impressions and memories of the characters. By doing so, the production resists the urge to make Hedda exist entirely without context. There’s something vaguely conspiratorial in the final tableau, as the character move towards Hedda’s body, commenting on it, almost unmoved by the sight. Being without period does not make something without politics, after all.
Hedda Gabler is an excellent character in an excellent play, here presented in an excellent production. I loved it.
Photo by Jan Versweyveld.