*Hedda Gabler,* 5/8/17
Richard and I saw a "live" screening of *Hedda Gabler* from the National Theatre in London on 5/8/17. I put the word "live" in quotes because it wasn't really live - - it was live in March, when they first screened it, and this was a repeat. Still, it was live at the time, so it had the feel of a live performance.
There were two big draws for this show: first, I love the play, see it every chance I get (and I've had plenty, a full list below). And it was directed by Ivo van Hove, the revelatory Belgian director. We've seen three productions of his: *Antigone* at BAM (with Juliette Binoche), *A View From the Bridge* on Broadway (with Mark Strong), and *The Crucible* on Broadway (with Saoirrse Ronan, Ben Winshaw, Sophie Okonedo, Ciarán Hinds, and Tavi Gevinson). He's one of the most exciting people working in the theatre today, I knew that he would do something interesting with the play.
He gave it a contemporary setting, which bothered Richard, but didn't bother me. There's a fad now to create drama by making a mess on the stage. I've seen it five or six times over the last few years, and I'm really getting tired of it. But in this case it made sense. The stage was more or less bare (the newlyweds have just moved into their new home) and he had buckets of fresh flowers on one side of the stage. At the end of the first scene Hedda took these flowers and either smashed them against the floor or stapled them onto the wall. They were kept there for the rest of the first act and no one mentioned them, which was unsettling. Which is what a theatrical gesture like this should do.
The two stand-out performances were by Ruth Wilson as Hedda and Rafe Spall as the judge. My friend Susie is a big fan of Wilson on *The Affair* - - I haven't seen that show, hadn't seen her in anything, and was impressed with her performance. She held nothing back, had no vanity and no desire to make Hedda likable, which led to her being more honest and more pitiable. She and van Hove had made the decision that Hedda is mentally ill, not just selfish and willful, and it worked. Spall was quietly intense as the judge. Richard and I had seen him in *Betrayal* on Broadway, and he was even more impressive in this.
Van Hove had one big misstep: at the end of the play (SPOILER ALERT, go to the next paragraph if you don't want to read this) the judge shows that he has power over Hedda, the last straw that leads to her suicide. Van Hove had Spall drink a can of tomato juice and dribble it out of his mouth onto Wilson's face. Of course this was disgusting and intense, but I thought it was cheap. He could have showed the power dynamic with the two of them sitting next to each other, it's right there in the text. He could find many ways to show the final degradation of the character without being so literal.
Two more van Hove productions coming up: the National Theatre is doing a "live" screening of his production of *Obsession* with Jude Law, based on the Visconti movie, baed on *The Postman Always Rings Twice.* I'm sure that will be a stunner. And I just read in the paper that he's doing a stage adaptation of *All About Eve* in London next spring, starring the one and only Cate Blanchett. I think Richard and I will be taking a trip across the pond to see THAT.
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A guided tour through my experience with *Hedda Gabler.*
1993: A PBS film of a stage production with Fiona Shaw, directed by Deborah Warner. Also with Stephen Rea as Hedda's beau no mo'. Very strong, intense, imaginative without being wacko.
2001: A Broadway production with Kate Burton, directed by Nicholas Martin. The first play I ever saw on Broadway, and without a doubt the best production of *HG* I've seen. The director played up the comic aspects of the play (who would guess there was so much comedy in this play), which in turn ramped up the drama. You have more capacity for the drama when you're having a good time. Burton was extraordinary as Hedda.
Spring 2006: A Sydney Theatre Company production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, starring Cate Blanchett and directed by Robyn Nevin. Also with Hugo Weaving at the judge. I'd never seen Blanchett onstage before, and was thrilled by her declamation and her noble carriage, but the show was a dull one.
Fall 2006: Yes, Hedda was back at BAM just a few months later. You'd think that we could use a break from her, after that boring Sydney production, but who could resist a German production, in German, with a contemporary setting, with songs by the freaking BEACH BOYS played between scenes? It was exciting, illuminating, startling, everything the Sydney production wasn't. Directed by Thomas Ostermeier starring Katharina Schüttler as Hedda. SPOILER ALERT: I'll never forget the final tableau. Hedda has gone offstage and shot herself. Her husband and college friend hear the shot but don't get up from what they're doing - - they're organizing the notes from Hedda's old boyfriend's book (which Hedda burned). The turntable revolved to show Hedda slumped on the floor in the next room, her brains splashed against the wall. The turntable continued turning to show the husband and friend still laying the notes out on the floor, blithely unaware of what happened in the next room. And the Beach Boys' most heavenly song, "God only knows," playing over all of this. It was one of those moments.
2009: A Broadway production with Mary Lousie Parker as Hedda, Michael Cerveris as the husband, and Peter Stormare as the judge, directed by Ian Rickson. One of the worst things I've ever seen onstage. The show opened with Hedda asleep on a couch, her skirt pulled up so her ass was hanging out. And it went downhill from there. Richard put it perfectly: "Each of the actors was in a different show, and each of those shows was lousy." We left at intermission.