Thursday 9 February 2017

Hedda Gabler at the National, or, “Why are you talking like this?”

I'll begin by admitting to three possible biases. Firstly, I've been unimpressed by the last two van Hove shows I've seen (Kings of War at the Barbican, Lazarus at King's Cross). Secondly, I am currently generally dissatisfied with the National Theatre which under the Norris administration is, in my view, falling short too often of the standards it should attain. Thirdly, despite many attempts I have never really managed to get on with Ibsen. It may be that one or some combination of all of those three issues and not the flaws of this particular show explain why it failed to wow me.

Ivo van Hove and his set designer Jan Versweyveld set events in one large, unfurnished room. I like to have an aisle seat and, in advance, I was rather staggered that somebody could have managed to direct in the Lyttelton in such a way that side Stalls have to be sold at restricted view – in fact there was scarcely any visible effect. The problem instead is primarily one of sound. In consequence, I assume, of the bare nature of the playing area, everybody sounds, most of the time, as though they are shouting. This badly undermines the finding of nuance in the drama – because the performers start, or it sounded where I was sitting as if they start, by shouting – as relationships fray there is nowhere vocally for people to go. Related to this is a second problem of emotionless delivery – having seen several of these performers give fine performances in very different roles I assume this to have been at van Hove's direction. It becomes particularly apparent after the interval leading me to increasingly wonder whether van Hove actually thinks any of the events are taking place at all. Van Hove also seems determined to make motivations as clear and in the audience's face as possible. Ruth Wilson's Hedda is so hostile to her husband (and indeed everyone else) from the first scene that, again the play gives itself nowhere dramatically to go.

The other major directorial problem with this show is a classic one of movement and the use of set. It starts at the very beginning when in the opening scene (in which, according to the version of the text used here, she is not present) Hedda sits slumped over an upright piano centre stage playing occasional sequences of notes. Unfortunately this reminded me of a particularly dire production of A Doll's House which came to the Edinburgh International Festival some years back and featured a pianist sitting on the edge of the stage accompanying the action with bits of Grieg. I have rarely found this kind of device effective, and for me it was not so here. As an aside, it sets up an intrusive piano and occasional popular hits soundscape (including Cohen's Hallelujah) which like many similar in London lately the play would have been better off without. Similar mistaken decisions mar the rest of the evening. There's a maid, Berte (Eva Magyar) who spends pretty much the entire show sitting stage right answering the door – except on one baffling occasion when she seems stricken by a sudden attack of amnesia and has to wait to be directed to do so by Hedda. Characters frequently enter and exit in such a way that they can overhear things they shouldn't be able to, but to which they are not allowed to react. In the final scene, van Hove resorts to another currently fashionable device which is to keep everybody hovering about on the edge of the playing area plainly able to see Hedda even though the text implies they can't and doing nothing to stop her from shooting herself which I just did not find convincing. The most annoying moment was having Sinead Matthews's Mrs Elvsted go to sleep on a sofa and remain unconvincingly oblivious through a series of encounters mere feet away. In the earlier part of the show there are some nice moments – van Hove occasionally places members of the ensemble on one of the sofas in thoughtful, suggestive ways – indicative of what he might be capable of if he indulged in less messing around and cleverness. But even here there are flaws – van Hove is inclined to place people side on or with their backs to the audience. As with a number of recent shows by various hands I had the feeling that he was imagining filmic close-ups – but, as I've said before, it just doesn't work in the same way live on stage (at least we don't have the accompanying film work that was so maddening in Kings of War). In the last analysis, there are just too many occasions when the movement of people or set (particularly the bizarre boarding up of the window and changes in lighting towards the conclusion) just seems arbitrary and insufficiently connected to character or narrative.

On paper this was a mostly strong ensemble. I was particularly keen to see Ruth Wilson again who I admired in the NT's Philistines and the Donmar's Anna Christie. I was less impressed on this occasion. My main problem is she plays the role for so much of the evening with such powerful rage and physical weight that both her collapse at the hands of Judge Brand and eventual suicide just didn't seem convincing to me (incidentally all the business in the collapse with what seems to be a tin of soup was another overdone directorial intervention). The best work comes from the three men – Kyle Soller's Tesman, Rafe Spall's Brack and Chukwudi Iwuji's Lovborg but I didn't feel, finally, that any of them wholly succeeded in transcending the flaws of the production. Sinead Matthews improves on her previous weak performance in the poor Evening at the Talk House, but not sufficiently.

During the second half of this show I increasingly lost patience with it. Overall, I felt like I was watching a mediocre European import of the sort which features in the Edinburgh International Festival drama programme on an usually annual basis. It's better than quite a few other recent efforts from Norris's National, but still not sufficiently. Once again, though, Norris has demonstrated that he's not a man to change his mind about a director – van Hove returns in the autumn with a film adaptation. I only hope, after Kings of War, that it will be without any actual film.

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