How exactly does one adapt a play for a modern audience without losing too much of the flavour of the original? Frequently termed the female Hamlet, Hedda Gabler certainly has her fair share of misery, a fact not lost on director Ivo van Hove. Adapted from Patrick Marber’s new version of Henrik Ibsen’s play, this National Theatre performance is delightfully modernised and thrillingly sleek and shiny. The characters are compelling and real in a play unabashedly updated, though perhaps not entirely in sync with the original. The adaptation undoubtedly takes the play to the twenty-first century, and captivatingly, but in doing so loses some of its social relevance.
The scene opens with Hedda, an acquired taste, bored after six months on the continent, preparing for a life of apparent misery. Lizzy Watts careers and swaggers about the stage, drunkenly, forging shallow, meaningless friendships with ease; one minute a sulking, utterly dislikable brat, the next an enchanting hostess, Watts seamlessly and beautifully acts both. Abhin Galeya’s performance was also endearing; he was charming, engaging, energetic – but he wasn’t exactly the portly, bespectacled Tesman that Ibsen imagined.
The set is a haunting twist on a gilded cage; light, bright and cavernously empty, the original set in London even had a concrete floor installed. Staging details were undeniably clever, including the choice to present Gabler’s pistols in a clear-glass cabinet, affixed to the back wall in the constant eyesight of the audience, acting as genuine Chekhovian guns, both for the viewers and Hedda.
A stark contrast to Ibsen’s exacting instructions, the set is Spartan and innovative, at once too big to be cosy and too small to comfortably live, and, just like a real modernist prison, there are no on-stage exits.
The relevance of the original message seems compromised – do we believe that the modern woman is still chained to the kitchen sink?
The dialogue has been tidied up to witty, loaded exchanges and tense conversations, which keep the pace of the play moving nicely, though the musical interludes were underwhelming, and felt disjointed and awkward rather than threading the production together. I couldn’t help but question whether this adaptation stretches Ibsen’s vision a little too far. The relevance of the original message seems compromised – do we believe that the modern woman is still chained to the kitchen sink?
When Ibsen wrote the play in 1890, he hoped to highlight how little control women had over their own lives, but as Hedda glares from her palace of glass and aluminium, one has to wonder whether updating the play has taken away some of the impact. Hedda is no longer a woman driven desperately bored, but just unhinged; a surly, stroppy teenager, and at choice moments charmingly, sardonically manipulative. For the most part, the modern woman has other options available to alleviate her ennui than sabotaging and controlling others, options of which nineteenth century Hedda could merely have dreamt.
Exciting and entertaining, the play was gripping, but not quite the Hedda one might expect. The production as a stand-alone is entertaining and engaging, but I cannot quite shake the feeling some of Ibsen’s original message has been lost.