Heartless and Hard to Watch
A review of Hedda Gabler by Elena Maria Piech
Belgian director Ivo Van Hove’s Hedda in Hedda Gabler is not a feminist anti-heroine. If anything, she’s simply an angry, privileged aristocrat.
The majority of reviewers said they enjoyed this modern version of Hedda Gabler. As Andrzej Lukowski wrote in a piece for Time Out London, this new production “rejects the usual, comforting, proto-feminist reading wherein its heroine does the terrible things she does because she is a victim.” Additional reviews from The Guardian and The Times discuss how this new production is revolutionary because Van Hove creates a character who is flat out twisted, rather than a misunderstood woman with possible mental health issues. Over 75 percent of the reviews written about Van Hove’s Hedda Gabler ignore why Henrik Ibsen’s play from 1891 was monumental. Ignoring the history behind Ibsen’s piece takes away from the original heart of the production. In one of the few reviews to negatively critique Van Hove’s work, Lloyd Evans of the Spectator honestly tells his readers “Hedda Gabler is one of the most influential plays ever written. It not merely illuminated an injustice, the enslavement of women within marriage, it fomented the revolutionary achievements of feminism. It deserves to be done as Ibsen intended.” Evans adds, “the harder she asserts her rage the harder it is to care about it.”
Most reviews fail to mention how this production lost the feminist inspiring undertones of Ibsen’s original piece. But, all are keen to praise former television star, Ruth Wilson, for her ability to portray the coldhearted Hedda. The Evening Standard’s Henry Hitchings said it best when he wrote “[Wilson] captures the boredom and reckless verve of a passionate woman who rebels against the numbness of a stifling marriage, spots vulgarity unerringly yet dreads the prospect of scandal.” This Hedda is heartless. If she cannot have her desires, she would rather tear everyone else down instead of improve herself. When describing a scene that happens near the second-half of the play, David Jays wrote in the Sunday Times, “Ruth Wilson’s Hedda isn’t scared when someone points a pistol at her.”
The pistol placement brings up another interesting point about this production. Most reviewers seemed to enjoy the minimal stage design. Rather than having large Victorian era furniture, this production features only one white room with a handful of items that are used exclusively to advance the story. Most reviews seemed to describe the stage, but they did not describe why the director would have picked that design. Instead, it seemed as if reviewers were simply excited to see Hedda Gabbler produced in a new, modern, and minimal way. In one of the rare reviews that examines Van Hove’s setup, Hitchings wrote “Hedda and her newish husband Tesman live in an apartment that resembles a vast box – its most striking features a distressed piano and an oddly inefficient intercom system. The only way characters can get in and out of the couple’s home is by traipsing through the auditorium. This heightens our awareness of Hedda’s confinement, as if she’s a strange object put on display for connoisseurs to come and examine.”
Judging by the audience Hitchings wrote for, it slightly makes sense why Hitchings might have a more sophisticated review that critiques beyond the surface-level of the play. He writes for The Guardian, a large newspaper with a readership that is more likely to pay for expensive and extravagant shows. This starkly contrasts with Quentin Letts review in the Daily Mail, which has readers that would probably be less likely to spend a large sum of money on theatre tickets. When describing the stage setup, Letts’ negative remark said cast members make “entrances from the auditorium, heaven knows why.”
Even if Letts’ review seems to be written a manor written for more of the everyday person, it provided the most honest analysis of the production. He did not focuse on the fame of the established producers, actors, and set designers. He cared only about the theatrical world that exists in front of him. Letts final comment provided ann accurate summary of what it is like to watch Hedda Gabler. Wilson is a strong actress. She does a wonderful job at creating a character filled exclusively with animosity and hatred, but “for a properly moving account of one of the great European tragedies, however, you should look elsewhere.”