Tag Archives: Scandinavian Drama

Hedda Gabler – National Theatre

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“Academics are no fun” according to Hedda Gabler in Patrick Marber’s modern reworking of Ibsen’s famous play, but they are dependable, reliable and safe, so despite years of flirtation and numerous suitors she marries one because it was time. This year we have seen some particularly outstanding female performances; Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea and Billy Piper in Yerma were two of the finest portrayals not just in 2016 but any year, and with a couple of weeks to go Ruth Wilson joins them with her take on the infamous heroine.

Ivo van Hove is one of the few theatre directors who is as well-known as his productions. Much like Robert Icke, Carrie Cracknell and Jamie Lloyd, his style is distinctive, recognisable and notably innovative – incidentally this production of Hedda is sharing the Lyttelton stage with Icke’s astonishing version of The Red Barn (which earned my first five star professional review) staring Mark Strong who’s last stage appearance was coincidentally in van Hove’s game-changing A View From the Bridge. To Hedda Gabler, van Hove brings his ability to deconstruct classic plays and sweep away preconceptions to create slicing visions of quite modern people engaged in battles against their own destruction.

Hedda Gabler is a much admired local society beauty who surprises the town by marrying quiet up-and-coming academic Tesman. The play opens as the couple return home from a 6 month honeymoon and research trip to the house Hedda once claimed she always wanted and to face the men she once dallied with including Judge Brack who continues to visit in the hope of an opportunity.  As Hedda begins to suffocate, rival academic Lovborg returns to town with his lover Mrs Elvsted, casting doubt on Tesman’s academic future, and when Hedda decides to alleviate her boredom by meddling with the relationships around her, she brings only destruction.

van Hove’s production is strikingly modern from the off, and instantly sets it apart from earlier period-set versions – including Sheridan Smith’s excellent take at the Old Vic in 2012. We’re used to seeing Ibsen in claustrophobic rooms overstuffed with furniture that mimics the oppression of his characters, but here van Hove instead introduces a virtually bare city apartment, designed by Jan Versweyveld, suggesting both the current poverty of the newlyweds unable to furnish it to the standards Hedda expected, and reiterating the idea that it is the moral and emotional lives of the characters that oppresses them not their décor. They would be equally tormented in any room and it is credit to van Hove and particularly to Wilson that they manage to fill the cavernous Lyttleton stage with Hedda’s interior life.

Occasionally referred to as the female Hamlet, this version departs somewhat from the idea of inevitable doom and instead slowly charts the descent of a smart woman, used to controlling and toying with those around her who stubbornly refuses to help herself when several opportunities for escape present themselves. She is more than merely a bird in a cage, but someone who has built that cage for herself and (almost morally) refuses to go back on her word, accepting the consequences. So, the play’s conclusion comes not from certainty but after a moment of weakness is politically outmanoeuvred and backed into a corner by fear of the kind of public scandal which has kept her marriage intact.

Wilson’s Hedda is complex and fascinating, managing to tread the line between alluring and repellent, victim of circumstance and active agent in events. During the first half we see her frustration build and snap; she’s barely civil to her husband and his aunt, rapidly wheedles the truth with faux friendship from Mrs Elvsted and relishes the moments of flirtation with Lovborg and Brack. Coming back from a dull honeymoon, Wilson shows Hedda slowly resuming her former, rather vicious and arrogant, character and belief in her power over others, so at the interval she feels emboldened by the havoc she has unleashed.

In the second half of the evening we see just how wrong she has been, so here Wilson is able to display Hedda’s delusion and vulnerability – particularly as a supposedly strong woman that never leaves that empty house. Her belief in her irresistibility comes crashing down as both her liaisons prove, in her words, “vulgar” and still fails to realise that her husband is the only man who genuinely loved her unconditionally. Meanwhile the small victory she claims in the first half over Lovborg and Mrs Elvsted is brutally revisited upon her and, on stage throughout, Wilson conveys every nuance of Hedda’s suffering and loss of spirit as fate turns against her. It is an excellent and meaningful performance that doesn’t try to make you like her, but compels you to watch her nonetheless.

Wilson is given excellent support by the rest of the cast, particularly Rafe Spall as Brack. Often portrayed as a bearded old man, this young Judge is slick, confidence and right out of some sinister gangster movie. Spall is all charm and determination as he oils is way around Hedda in the early scenes, but not put off by her refusals to betray her marriage, he is also a predator and waits for the perfect opportunity to bite. The chemistry with Wilson crackles as they flirt dangerously with one another, which is a high point of the show.

Likewise there is considerable chemistry with Chukwudi Iwuji’s Lovborg, a man driven by the discovery of his own genius and the fruition of his ideas. Along with Mrs Elvsted – an occasionally stilted but felt Sinead Matthews – they are the counterpoint to Hedda and Tesman’s relationship, one built on mutual understanding, support and respect which Hedda decides to destroy. Poldark fans will recognise Kyle Soller’s Tesman, a character not that dissimilar to Francis who also married a women who didn’t love him, but here Soller retains his natural American accent which does stand out a bit, especially as the narrative has all the characters originating in the same town. Nonetheless, Tesman is given a parallel life of his own driven by academia and the strong bonds with his aunts while being in thrall to Heddar which Soller conveys really well.

Throughout van Hove creates drama and tension while Marber cleverly plays with metaphors of emptiness and dawning light. The bare apartment and repeated references to whether Hedda is pregnant or not imply an emptiness inside her that cannot be filled, and here An D’Huys costumes puts Hedda initially in a visible silk slip shrouded in a black dressing gown suggesting her suppressed sexuality, but later in the play the dressing gown is removed as the real Hedda emerges – as slippery and thin as her costume. Linked to this is the use of sunlight in the room which Hedda initially reacts badly to and tries to shade, but at the start of part two as her real self emerges the stage is bathed in a bronze sunrise as she flirts heatedly with Brack, and then as events close in around her, she becomes entirely entombed in a dark and falsely lit world.

The National Theatre has hit a purple patch and this version of Hedda Gabler rounds off a fantastic year of shows that, after a lengthy dry spell, has ensured its back at the top of its game. The attraction of visionary directors like Cracknell, Icke and van Hove has given momentum to its programme of new and classic productions that are not just good quality but also innovative and appealing for new audiences. Marber’s translation of Hedda Gabler feels fresh and dangerous, and while the strange decision to use occasional music to underscore Hedda’s depression jars – and is something Wilson manages perfectly well on her own – this memorable production adds one final flourish to a year of great female performances.

Hedda Gabler is at the National Theatre until 21 March 2017. Tickets start at £15 and the show is part of the Friday Rush scheme offering tickets to sold out productions for the following week at £20 –  1pm every Friday. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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The Master Builder – Old Vic

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Ralph Fiennes is truly a master builder… of character, and the West End has seen two highly accomplished performances in under a year and with the announcement last week that he’ll take the lead in Antony and Cleopatra at the National in 2018 stage work is taking priority. Following on from his superb lead in Man and Superman, Fiennes has just began a 2 month run as Halvard Solness the title character in Ibsen’s The Master Builder. Now Ibsen is tough to get right despite being the second most performed playwright after Shakespeare and it’s taken me some time to come round to him, long deterred by dreary productions in cluttered rooms. The Dolls House, which I will never see again, I studied for both A-Level English Literature and Theatre Studies, and put me off Ibsen for a very long time – forget waterboarding if you ever want to torture someone show them the Juliet Stevenson TV version on a loop and they’ll tell you anything you want to know just to make it stop,

Thankfully after many years elapse Ibsen plays have been given a new lease of life. Following on from the searing darkness of Ghosts at the Trafalgar Studios and the Old Vic’s own production of Hedda Gabler with Sheridan Smith in 2012, this production of The Master Builder has hit the West End at a fortuitous moment, when cluttered Victorian drawings room designs have been swept away and replaced with simpler, airy designs that focus attention on character. What the National did for Chekhov last summer (in the marvellous Three Days in the Country), the Old Vic has now done for Ibsen.

The Master Builder is the story of Halvard Solness, a man who has reached the peak of his profession in his local town. A self-trained architect who started on the building sites, he has risen to control all those around him. Solness is not a good man and early on in the play (so no spoiler) we learn that he and his wife lost their children when their former home burned to the ground, and while they have lived as virtual strangers for many years, that tragedy created the opportunity for his professional success. A consummate manipulator, particularly of women’s affections, Solness’s life is thrown into disarray when a young woman breezes in announcing that he’d kissed her when she was just 13 and promised her a kingdom, which she has now come to claim. Catalysed by her arrival, over the course of three acts, Solness debates the outcomes of his life, clinging to his fame while finally verbalising his guilt and fear, wondering if the personal happiness he has long denied himself has finally arrived.

Ralph Fiennes is surely on course to earn two Olivier nominations in one year (qualifying period is 25 February 2015 to 16 February 2016) which would be an extraordinary achievement given the challenging roles he has selected, and this performance as the Master Builder is one of his finest. Over the course of three acts he drip feeds us insights which begin to change your perspective, it’s not so much a progression as a skilled unravelling of a man riven with insecurities, but clinging to the perhaps meaningless attributes of pride and fame. At the end of Act One we’ve seen a man in complete control of his life, career and the people around him, and Fiennes brilliantly uses not just his tone of voice but also an imposing physicality to make it clear that Solness is king of all he surveys. This form of domineering masculinity is expressed in a firm Colossus-like stance, feet firmly apart and hands on hips, or sitting grandly back in his chair, completely relaxed and in control as he casually flicks away the adoration of his female book-keeper. Even when Hilde Wangel arrives with kissing claims, he dismisses her as a silly girl so by the first interval the man Fiennes has given us is clearly objectionable and manipulative.

David Hare’s adaptation is by no means overwritten but on several occasions Solness gives voice to his turmoil some moments after the audience has already understood that quite clearly from Fiennes’s high calibre performance. The finest actors don’t just act but are able to completely become their characters, and in the Second Act we seen Solness weaken as the effects of the last few years take their toll and he reveals the still tender scars of loss and guilt at having success built on tragedy. His body languages changes from the confidence of the first section to a more shrunken figure, shoulders drooping and pressed into his body, and in a particularly intense scene with his wife, he curls entirely into himself. Much of the introspection he saves for his conversations with Hilde so Fiennes cleverly resumes his more masculine stance when others enter the room, almost a habit he can’t shake off, but partly an unwillingness to concede the spoils he has won even though they don’t make him happy.

Throughout the production this notion of manly expectation is given greater meaning by the knowledge that he has no heir to inherit whatever he has achieved, the lack of children somehow being an affront to his masculinity which he compensates for by being overbearing. The implied casual dalliances with other women and fear of youth taking his prizes away from him are, in Fiennes’s interpretation, a driving force, battles to be won. What was also so fascinating was its contemporary resonance with celebrity culture and the obsessions of fandom which Fiennes, perhaps subconsciously, has drawn on. The idea that the fan feels they know the celebrity, and thereby projects fantasy traits and situations onto them comes across very strongly in this version of the Hilde-Solness relationship, making you wonder how many of the Harry Potter fans in the audience are doing the same with Fiennes in that moment, and what it must be like to have young, and not so young, women (and men) be so engaged with your life in that way.

The character of Hilde then is an interesting one and is designed to bring a sense of freshness to proceedings. To some extent her projections of Solness embolden her so it appears for the first time he is challenged and understood by someone. Sarah Snook’s performance never quite allows the audience to decide if Hilde has entirely invented the kiss, and was merely confused by the awakening of adult feelings in a young girl. It’s a crucial point in the play actually, determining whether Solness was genuinely despicable enough to take advantage of a young girl or whether it’s all in her head, and it’s a good thing to leave open to interpretation. Similarly, it’s never entirely clear whether Hilde genuinely wants Solness to fulfil her dreams or is bent on revenge, and in the final moments her almost sexual excitement could suggest either. Hilde could be a fantasist affected by the repression of sexual feeling, or herself a skilled manipulator plotting the demise of a figure who let her down. While Snook implies these things, sometimes her performance gets a bit jolly hockey-sticks as if trying too hard to appear different to the others, and sadly she is no match for Fiennes who is on considerable form here, so her half of the duologues feel less psychologically complete and it’s harder to see why he’s so won over by her.

There’s good support from Martin Hutson as Ragnar Brovik, the assistant architect frustrated by Solness constantly overlooking his talents and from Charlie Cameron as Ragnar’s fiancée Kaja Fosil with whom Solness mercilessly flirts and casts aside. Linda Emond too as Mrs Solness is very touching and, despite her short stage time, creates an impression of duty that supplants the grief and suffering she feels, which nicely matches the public persona her husband has created to supress his own grief, and there’s a brilliant scene between them in Act Two where they start to move towards one another only to be interrupted, hinting at the relationship they had once had.

There is something quite Shakespearean about this production, a tragedy in the dramatic sense as the protagonist’s fatal flaw leads to an inevitable outcome. David Hare’s careful adaptation highlights the ambiguity of the characters and their position, bringing in the elements of fantasy and philosophical reflection while repurposing the language for the modern ear. Matthew Warchus directs with purpose, giving his actors room to fully explore the various nuances of character while maintaining a handle on pace and tension. Rob Howell’s design is a sight to be seen, long gone is the tiresome clutter of past productions and instead he has created a stylish architects home that feels modern and slick but surrounded on 3 sides by the charred remnants of the past, which whatever they do, they can never escape.  I was beginning to despair of the Old Vic’s new season and had been underwhelmed with the offerings so far but this is a triumph – the perfect combination of great writing, meaningful design, good direction and superlative performance. But my word is this Fiennes’s play and Oliviers or not, it will certainly be talked about for years to come. Don’t miss it.

The Master Builder is at the Old Vic until 19 March. Tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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