Last night I went to see Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” at Milton Keynes Theatre - a new version by Patrick Marber directed by Ivo van Hove for the National Theatre. Written in 1890, it is seen as Ibsen’s masterpiece. Now everyone knows that I am a big fan of Ibsen. I’ve directed a few Ibsen plays myself and acted in them. I’ve been to Norway to research him. To me he is a man ahead of his time. A man who really understood women and the frustration they felt living in a male dominated world within the constraints of nineteenth century Norway. But is he still relevant today? Women are not treated as children or possessions now or are they? They can vote, own property, have a bank account and take out loans. We’ve come a long way since Ibsen was writing Nora’s predicament would just not happen now or would it? Hedda would be able to find her purpose in life. They would both have more choices available to them. Nora would be able to take out a loan and pay it back without forging her father’s signature. Hedda would not have to marry a second rate academic and then be totally bored. Well perhaps we’d all like to think that is the case, but Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda with its modern, minimalist set, costume and sound design shows how searingly relevant it still is. How relevant Ibsen still is. How women are still treated like pawns in power games. How many women struggle to find a purpose in life and never feel truly valued.
This production was disturbing and challenging and I loved it. Hedda is not a very nice woman. She is clearly fiercely intelligent, but she is manipulative and destructive. She is the psychotherapist’s complex client with many presenting issues. She demonstrates classic self defeating and destructive behaviour. She can never find who she really is. All the men around her construct her. Her husband patronises her. Brack sexually and mentally abuses her. When Hedda tries to gain power it is in a destructive way. She burns Lovberg’s manuscript and then lies about why she did it. She taunts Mrs Elvsted. She shows contempt for her husband. She is deliberately mocking of his aunt. Her plans to gain any power never work out. Lovberg’s manuscript is resurrected though through Mrs Elvsted and her husband working together. We should hate Hedda and feel glad her plan has been thwarted, but I felt deeply sorry for her despite her horrible and spiteful act. She is excluded. Here is a desperately unhappy and vulnerable woman with no way out. The final conclusion is messy, visceral and painful.
Ivo van Hove says this of Hedda -
“So Hedda is not about leaving your husband. For me this play is not about a woman being in prison, because she imprisons herself; she is not a woman caught in social conventions because she gives in to that herself. It’s like an existential condition of a person. So for me, it is like an existential play, not a social drama – it is deeper."
“In theatre we have a tendency to explain everything. But which person in the world can you reduce to one thing? Nobody. That’s what this play gives. It is like life itself.”
Now what could be more relevant than that?