Broadcast theatre review: Hedda Gabler

Hedda Gabler, National Theatre Live.
Hedda Gabler, National Theatre Live.
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It’s always interesting when a play written in an entirely different time still speaks to us today when shown on stage.

Many of us have seen Shakespeare plays and possibly marvelled at how the playwright was able to produce work that has proved of relevance to each succeeding generation.

It’s clear why it seemed a good idea to produce a ‘new version’ of Hedda Gabler, as in National Theatre Live’s production screened at South Holland Centre last Thursday.

The play is regarded as ‘Ibsen’s masterpiece’ and was entirely enjoyable thanks to the marvellous performances by all the cast, but in particular Ruth Wilson as Hedda.

However, I do question whether it’s a play that should have been updated.

Ibsen, writing in the 1890s, explored the themes of women and the way they had very little control of their lives, particularly once they were married, and areas of power a well as psychology.

It concerns Hedda, the daughter of an aristocrat, who is newly married (to George Tesman) and is already bored.

The action centres on Hedda and George’s new home and while there is much coming and going of characters, Hedda is fixed in the home, much as one imagines a Victorian woman might have been.

However, in contemporary life women are independent, and can work and fill their lives with things that interest them, so one has to assume our contemporary Hedda had some kind of psychological problem that prevents her from leaving the home – and she certainly displayed aspects of manic behaviour at times, and had a very odd obsession with her late father’s guns.

Another odd aspect of her behaviour was the obsession with ‘beautiful’ death, as in the death she urges on her former lover (with the use of one of her father’s guns). Today, I think we are more obsessed with a ‘good’ death and probably find the concept of a beautiful death rather macabre.

Interestingly, the only other person on stage at all times, dressed in black and usually sitting to one side, was the family maid, Bertha. When Ibsen wrote, women and servants might have been those confined to the domestic sphere. Perhaps the fact that our modern wife and maid are similarly trapped in the home is a comment on the position of women in the 21st century: while many are free to work and choose how they live their lives, others are still living with controlling men - while others are living under conditions of modern slavery.

As I said, it was enjoyable - I hadn’t seen Timothy Spall’s son Rafe acting before, and he made a convincing bully in the character Brack, Hedda having handed him power over her (we’re back to the guns again).

It’s wonderful that we can see National Theatre productions in Spalding, and even better that those early problems with the technology appear to have been entirely ironed out and we can now watch a show uninterrupted.

Jean Hodge