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National Theatre masterpiece Hedda Gabler comes to Norwich

PUBLISHED: 19:12 29 October 2017 | UPDATED: 19:12 29 October 2017

Ruth Wilson (Hedda Gabler) and Rafe Spall (Brack) in original National Theatre production of Hedda Gabler. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Ruth Wilson (Hedda Gabler) and Rafe Spall (Brack) in original National Theatre production of Hedda Gabler. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

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Belgian director Ivo van Hove won superlatives for his strikingly modern production of Ibsen’s thrilling masterpiece Hedda Gabler. As it comes to this region on its debut tour, he tells us about his love for the play, why he couldn’t set it in the 19th cenury.

The National Theatre production of Hedda Gabler is coming to Norwich Theatre Royal. Photo: Submitted The National Theatre production of Hedda Gabler is coming to Norwich Theatre Royal. Photo: Submitted

The National Theatre production of Henrick Ibsen’s masterpiece Hedda Gabler, starring Ruth Wilson in the title role, had critics running out of superlatives.

Written by Olivier and Tony Award-winning playwright Patrick Marber, the production was directed by Ivo Van Hove, one of the world’s most exciting directors. He eschewed the traditional 19th century setting of the Norwegian playwright and placed his version on a sparsely furnished, bare-walled study in minimalism and brought the story up to date.

This made sense because this is a play that remains controversial in 2017, let alone 1891. The complex heroine, after whom the play is named, is a woman so “bored” she wilfully destroys the lives of those around her.

Now the production is coming to the region as part of a UK tour with Lizzy Watts playing the title role, joined by Madlena Nedeva (Berte), Christine Kavanagh (Juliana), Abhin Galeya (Tesman), Annabel Bates (Thea), Adam Best (Brack) and Richard Pyros (Lovborg).

Van Hove, who is currently working on the National Theatre’s world premiere of Network, based on the Oscar-winning film and featuring the UK stage debut of Bryan Cranston, spoke to us from the Netherlands ahead of the play reaching Norwich.

Ruth Wilson (Hedda Gabler) and Rafe Spall (Brack) in original National Theatre production of Hedda Gabler. Photo: Jan Versweyveld Ruth Wilson (Hedda Gabler) and Rafe Spall (Brack) in original National Theatre production of Hedda Gabler. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

You have directed Hedda Gabler on more than one occasion. What is it draws you back to Ibsen’s masterpiece?

There are some plays that for me are quite essential and Hedda Gabler is one of them. But at the same time there are so many misunderstandings and misconceptions about the play. I had done the play already in 2004 in New York and again in 2006 in Amsterdam, that’s how much I love it. There are always fabulous actresses to work with and I have got deeper and deeper into it.

What is it about the themes of the play that resonate with you?

What I always try to do is read a play as if it was written yesterday without any preconceptions. And when I read it again I discovered a play that in the 21st century could mean something different from the time that it had been written. It became this suicide play, about the most extreme choice of, in this case, a woman because she is not capable of living her life. Not because of society, because she has a huge opportunity of getting out of the life that she is stuck in, but she is not capable of doing it for different reasons. It became an existential play in that way and not so much about an oppressive society in the 19th century.

Lizzy Watts is playing Hedda Gabler in the tour. Photo: Submitted Lizzy Watts is playing Hedda Gabler in the tour. Photo: Submitted

You collaborated with Patrick Maber on this National Theatre production. Did you share the same vision for it?

When I asked Patrick to do a version it was based on this information and I think he did perfect work on it. He used the language of today and how people talk today not in the very far past. He also cut out a little bit of the information that for me is too much exposition. People nowadays absorb information much quicker than they did at the end of the 19th century.

The play is traditional rooted in the 19th century social context. Weren’t you worried it would lose something by updating it?

Our version is set somewhere in an apartment today. It makes no sense to me at all to set it once again in the 19th century. When I did A View from the Bridge [Arthur Miller’s Greek tragedy-inspired drama set in the world of Brooklyn dock-workers] that is set in the 1950s, I had to ask why did he specifically set it in that period? Of course he wrote it then, but it was more than that. Back then Brooklyn was sort of cut off with no buses of subways going to Manhattan. It was this remote place. So when I learnt more about the play and why he wrote it, for me this was the key element, not the specific setting or time. I think that sometimes so called naturalism can take away from the essential truths of a play sometimes.

Ruth Wilson (Hedda Gabler) and Kyle Soller (Tesman) in original National Theatre production of Hedda Gabler. Photo: Jan Versweyveld Ruth Wilson (Hedda Gabler) and Kyle Soller (Tesman) in original National Theatre production of Hedda Gabler. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

The production sees you again collaborating again with designer Jan Versweyveld and the staging is very sparse and minimalist. Is this your preferred style?

That is entirely dependant upon the play. I don’t have one style. At the moment I am working again for the National Theatre on Network [based on the 1976 with Bryan Cranston in the role of the news anchor Howard Beale] and that is a lavish production with live music. In many ways that’s the opposite of minimalism, its maximalism. Even with minimal staging I want to achieve the maximum effect. In all my productions I always try to search for the pure core of the text.

Joni Mitchell’s song Blue is a repeated refrain in the production. Why did you choose to use that song?

It immediately came to me when I read the play. It is a mythical song of Joni Mitchell, for many people even if they don’t like Joni Mitchell they like this song. It is a song full of desire, full of lust and it is about scars, about wounds in life. It is a way of telling what is on the inside of Hedda Gabler.

Hedda Gabler full cast of tour at first day of rehearsals. Photo: Alex Rumford Hedda Gabler full cast of tour at first day of rehearsals. Photo: Alex Rumford

The National Theatre production starred Ruth Wilson as Hedda to much acclaim. The role is being played on this tour by Lizzy Watts. How much does the role change with a different actress?

Of course that is such a big part for any production. You have to have someone who will bring a big personality to the role. I believe that any actor or actress is always playing themselves, so of course it can look as if they are playing the role the same - the staging is the same, the sets are the same - but I always allow that every actress to bring her personality to it. That is both out of respect and it is also how you get to what the whole meaning of the play is. It is how you get a kind of freshness, directness and a humour.

Do you think Hedda becomes a less sympathetic character in the modern setting?

I’m not so interested in sympathetic or unsympathetic. I think that is a misunderstanding that a lot of people, including actors and actresses, have; to think that they have to create sympathy for a character. Hedda from the first moment on stage is not sympathetic at all. She doesn’t try to please anyone. It’s only though playing the character well that slowly she gains the sympathy of the audience because they begin to understand what happened and that’s why she is so lonely.

You are now working on Network. The film was very president of the media age. Was that the appeal of staging it?

I saw the film in 1976 when it was first released and back then I thought it was maybe over the top, almost science fiction. But now we are living this science fiction, we are living in that world. The movie was a very successful satire on television, but today it has become a grim reality. I hope to turn this production from satire into tragedy.

• Hedda Gabler is at Norwich Theatre Royal from November 7-11, 7.30pm, 2.30pm Nov 8-9/11, £27.50-£8, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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