If there isn’t already a devoted Ruth Wilson fan club, there will be after this National Theatre performance finishes its run. The Affair actor manages to make every breath, every movement – even when she’s just a bystander on stage –genuinely thrilling.
Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is a bored bully, both a victim and a master manipulator in a world she’s not fit for. In daring director Ivo van Hove’s new production of the 19th century play, Hedda’s sense of suffocation is heightened cleverly by the cold, hospital-like set.
She and her new husband Tesman live in a huge white apartment where she complains, paces, wrecks things, fidgets, provokes and languishes in apathy on the sofa. She feels stifled by everyone and everything, especially her “dull”, “consistent” spouse, and her melancholy is accompanied by snippets of Joni Mitchell’s Blue.
Clever details add to the oppressive atmosphere – the maid who sits and watches her silently throughout the play, and the fact that actors have to walk through the auditorium to get into the couple’s home. We’re all watching Hedda, all the time.
Ruth Wilson as Hedda and Rafe Spall as Brack
There are a few things that work less well, however. When Hedda throws flowers across the stage and staples them to the wall in frustration, it looks beautiful but feels a bit too try-hard with its symbolism. Equally, Ibsen’s play is about Hedda’s powerlessness in a world of men – but perhaps it didn’t need to be spelled out by having Rafe Spall’s Brack literally hold her down on the floor.
But these are minor points in a hugely enjoyable production. Patrick Marber’s updated text is seething with sexuality, darkness and humour which is performed beautifully by the actors. Kyle Soller is brilliant as obsessive academic Tesman, who is young, hugely ambitious, vibrant but graceless.
Rafe Spall’s Brack is at first smarmy and suave, and by the end a nightmarish thug. Chukwudi Iwuji is devastating as Lovborg, Tesman’s tragic, desperate academic rival, and Kate Duchene plays Aunt Juliana, Tesman’s kind, sad aunt – and one of Hedda’s victims.
This production roots Hedda in a modern world where there are still plenty of women trapped in meaningless marriages, at the mercy of men. What makes this a must-see is Wilson’s ability to make Hedda a victim while also imbue her with a demonic spirit, a madness and a desire to destroy. She makes a chilling anti-hero.