Almost a decade before Freud began analysing the human psyche, Henrik Ibsen shatteringly probed the darkest recesses of a woman's mind in his masterpiece Hedda Gabler. His devastating portrait of a dysfunctional wife strait-jacketed into a loveless marriage was as shocking in 1890 as it was innovative. Never had audiences witnessed such a complex, fully rounded portrayal of a neurotic woman so at odds with the strict, socially acceptable behaviour patterns of the period.
It's the perfect subject for Belgium's Ivo van Hove, fast making a name for himself as one of the most exciting directors currently working in the theatre. His trailblazing productions of A View From the Bridge and The Crucible, both in the West End and on Broadway, have made him flavour of the year.
Working from a fluent, unfussy new adaptation by Patrick Marber, van Hove has updated Ibsen's masterpiece to the present and, courtesy of his designer Jan Versweyfeld, set it in a vast but sparsely furnished apartment with no doors. The room is dominated by an upright piano and is lit only by the light coming through the slats covering a large window.
Sitting at the piano with her back to the audience is Hedda Gabler, played by Ruth Wilson with a palpable inner sense of anger and frustration. She is, to borrow Tennessee Williams' famous title, a cat on a hot tin roof. A modern Medea, Hedda vents her debilitating lack of independence through acts of wanton cruelty and destruction most shockingly when she cold-bloodedly burns a precious manuscript belonging to Eilert Lovborg, her husband's friend and rival. She pines for a richer, more fulfilled existence but has no idea how to achieve it.
Wilson's Hedda is very much a modern woman whose vague expectations of life and the need to nurture her aristocratic roots cannot disguise her self-loathing or the fact that she's a useless philistine, desperate for comfort and security and with little to offer that is majestic or uplifting. The “vine leaves” she so passionately seeks in others will never belong to her. It's a lacerating performance whose every nuance and gesture demands attention.
Wilson is well-supported by Kyle Soller as her academic husband Tesman, refreshingly more attractive and less musty than usual, and by a suitably malignant Rafe Spall as the manipulative roué Judge Brack. I was less convinced by both Chuckwudi Iwuji's uncharismatic Lovborg, with whom Hedda has always been in thrall, and Sinead Mathhew's mousey, unhappily married Thea Elvsted, Hedda's erstwhile school friend and Lovborg's devoted assistant.
In redefining the play, van Hove's ideas are often startling. The scene where Brack claims dominance over Hedda by wilfully pouring a blood-like soft drink over her is genuinely disturbing; and I love the idea of Hedda wearing nothing but a negligee and appearing in bare feet.
The elimination of doors from the set (the characters enter and exit from various points in the auditorium) emphasises just how trapped Hedda feels in her bourgeois surroundings, and the fact that Berte (Eva Magyar), Hedda's attentive maid, is on stage all the time and becomes an intimate witness to her mistress's machinations is decidedly Sapphic. Unusual, too, is that Hedda's suicide by revolver shot actually takes place on stage.
But Van Hove's update asks as many questions as it answers. In a contemporary context, it's hard to believe that the efficient and dedicated Mrs Elvstead wouldn't have transferred Lovborg's handwritten manuscript to a computer for back-up, or that Tesman, on finding the manuscript in a gutter, wouldn't immediately have called his friend on his mobile phone to assure him all was well and not to panic.
More to the point, 130 years after the play was written, would Hedda, today, have even considered marrying Tesman, let alone committed suicide? Such inconsistencies are, inevitably, the price a director pays for taking a period piece out of its period and giving it a more modern context.