“Hedda Gabler”, the National Theatre

Oh IVO, it was all going so well.

I’m always up for a Hedda Gabler, it’s just such a fun and well put together play. “Didn’t they just do one?” a coworker said when I mentioned it. “At the Old Vic? Sheridan Smith?” Yes they did and it was great so shut up. This one at the National Theatre stars Ruth Wilson (off the TV apparently, I haven’t seen her shows but she was great and sharp as Hedda) and is directed by Ivo van Hove, the so-hot-right-now avant-garde director who’s been packing out all the London theatres: the National, the Young Vic, the Barbican, even sharing the big box out the back of King’s Cross with the Donmar. As far as I can tell from production photos and reviews, this Hedda is a straight revival of his 2004 production at the New York Theatre Workshop – the same set and staging, down to the placement of the piano, and the same ‘shock moments’ (of which more later).

I really liked that Tesman (Kyle Soller) was kind of a dick and Thea (Sinéad Matthews) was kind of conniving. It is fun watching the play tick over when they’re genuinely well meaning doofs, but I liked that Tesman was active and obviously resentful of Hedda (although: if he can see her that clearly, why did he marry her?), and that Thea had a bit of bite. Chuk Iwuji is an actor I will walk over glass to see (after his Henry VI in the RSC Histories ten – TEN! – years ago), and his Lovborg was a tightly coiled alcoholic, very tempting to make snap.

“OH NO,” I said during the second half, out loud, twice. (don’t fret: I was in the £15 slips so no one heard me.) The first time it may have been on purpose. Just after Hedda gave one of her pistols to Lovborg, having convinced him to shoot himself “beautifully”, the music crawled up: the opening chords of “Hallelujah”. Oh, “Hallelujah”. Written by Leonard Cohen (z”l), featured in cultural artefacts from Disney’s Shrek (John Cale’s cover) to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, and most recently sung as a lament-resistance anthem by Hillary Clinton (Kate McKinnon) on Saturday Night Live. It’s a beautiful song that has become a trite and lazy music choice; in 2009, Leonard Cohen asked for a moratorium on covers. I briefly hoped the sound design was just alluding to it, then Jeff Buckley started to sing. “OH NO” the first.

But that reaction might have intentional, she said hopefully: using clichéd music choices to show that Hedda’s ennui is clichéd, that her boredom is a boring kind of boredom. Sure, it used to be classy and moving – the first fifteen hundred times you heard it, but now oh my god just put a pistol to my head and pull.

The second OH NO doesn’t have a good answer though. In the last ten minutes, Judge Brack (Rafe Spall, crisp and creepy, and an actor who has the decency to spell his name as pronounced) straddles Hedda and ejaculates tomato juice onto her lap, her face, into a puddle on the floor, where he pushes her prone and grinds her face into it – twice (got to get both sides!).

Ivo – no.

I’m already a bit sad that London theatre is moving away from having modern European protagonists leave the stage to shoot themselves politely from behind a closed door. The Young Chekhov Seagull this spring had Konstantin take like AN HOUR to arrange his papers and wave his gun around, before collapsing in an armchair with his back to us; Sheridan Smith’s Hedda shot herself against a glass box, spattering viscously; and in the National’s Hedda there are no doors on stage at all, and Hedda totters around for a long few moments in cold white light before shooting herself as we watch. I miss the tension of the audience having no idea what a character is doing, before the little blast of a sound cue and everyone else on stage reacting. I miss the moment of stretched possibility that it has just been Dorn’s doctor’s bag exploding. And I miss Hedda getting to have a moment to herself, alone, without everybody staring at her as we have been all night. The horror Brack presents her with is of her becoming a spectacle in court: part of Hedda’s refusal to submit isn’t just popping herself, it’s removing herself from public view first.

Instead we get a bloke grinding Hedda’s face into the floor and spunking fluid all over her before she puts a gun to her head and drops in a messy heap in a silk slip upstage centre. I used to think it was kind of sweet when men found violence against women shocking. It was always a surprise to remember that this wasn’t their everyday lives, and it was nice (I thought) that these men were so sheltered they didn’t realise that these images and experiences aren’t shocking for us, because to be shocking something has to be unusual, instead of just something that happens, like finding 20p on the pavement or having to beep your Oystercard twice because it didn’t read the first time. Now I feel like we’ve told you enough times that you know. Even if you didn’t know in 2004, you know now. It’s misogynist and it’s boring. Knock it off.

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