Desperately seeking (interesting) beauty

Hedda Gabler. Showed until 21st March 2017 at National Theatre

When Ruth Wilson was interviewed for the Guardian someone asked:

‘I have seen Hedda Gabler three times and I’m looking to top that up with the NT Live. Never really got Ibsen before, but your interpretation of her was stunning – you have an amazing gift. Do you see a bit of Hedda in yourself, or is that a mean question?’

Ms Wilson replied:

‘It’s a bit of a mean question, because she’s not a very nice person, but yes, I do see a bit of myself in Hedda. I see a bit of myself in all my roles. I think she’s quite funny, but that’s my weird brain. I understand the frustration of feeling deeply and people not understanding you, and I get deeply frustrated at times – but I would never make the choices she makes. I hope I wouldn’t find myself in that situation – trapped in something I despised.’

The frustration of feeling deeply and not bring understood can feel exacerbated a hundredfold in a world which prominently parades Trump lack of brain cells and legs-it Brexit. There are so many things large and small to be angry and frustrated by, so many everyday inequalities and injustices, that occasionally it can feel difficult and exhausting just to deal with the emotion provoked. Maybe this is why I loved Ruth Wilson interpretation of Hedda Gabler so much.

Hedda has married an academic, Kyle Soller’s Tesman, afraid that she is losing the bloom of her youth and needing to settle down, tiring of her “chaotic” life.  She is restless, unhappy in her married life, will surely “die of boredom” with her husband the “assistant”. Ruth Wilson bringing the humour here in her heavily sardonic lines. Hedda lives in a house she never loved, although claimed to falsely in a rare moment of pity for the romantic knots Tesman found himself in, leading to engagement, wedding, honeymoon and “whatever hell lies after”. Academics are boring, she exclaims, she has no time for her husband’s papers and interests, the parties she was promised are postponed as the couple find themselves in debt from their extravagance. And although she may or may not be pregnant, it’s clear Hedda is not feeling maternal: “I don’t want to make something that makes demands” she retorts, capturing that the concept of motherhood for her is a depressing continuum of need and unfulfilled want. She throws continual sarcasm and teasing criticism at her husband who shakes it off with the occasionally bewildered air of a dampened dog.

Gabler is Hedda’s father’s name, and she is characterised as her dead father’s daughter much more so than her husband’s wife.  She keeps his pistols on display and likes shooting into clear blue skies. As she holds the pistol up to the audience and to what turns out to be her former lover we brace ourselves for the shot and the jump. Hedda seems a girl craving secret knowledge, like the power of tempting back alcoholism which she wields over ex-lover Chukwudi Iwuji ‘s Lovborg in glee.

“Well, if there was an award for best use of tomato juice! that would win it” I overheard a man share jovially as he left the theatre. He is referring to an awful scene towards the close of the play between Ruth Wilson’s Hedda Gabler and Rafe Spall’s Judge Brack in which Hedda is painfully degraded and humiliated with calmly brutal ease by the judge. My position a few rows from the front made it even more uncomfortable to watch up close this complete crushing of Hedda’s fragile character. It is a secret scene shared only with us, the helpless bystanders as the audience. There is something horrible about watching a torment that you are powerless to intervene in, particularly when it feels like a performance and enactment of forces at play in the very real world, leading to a tragic action driven by a feeling of complete hopelessness which is actively enforced and encouraged by another person (or persons – is it a suicide pact?). In a way that is quite rare for my experience of this kind of theatre I really understand how we reach the final scene. It feels like Hedda’s desperate last grasp at reclaiming beauty for herself following others (like Lovborg’s) failure to provide it for her.

This yearning for beauty is striking too in Hedda’s fit of activity in an early scene as she scrambles around the stage stapling flowers to the wall, an attempt at making her home environment beautiful which is temporal from the beginning. The flowers droop and fade, the only other decoration two pistols on the wall. Flicking the blinds back and forth in a bored frenzy as golden light filters through them, Ruth Wilson’s Hedda is much like a caged wild animal. She paces restlessly barefoot around the room, yet with a grace and presence that makes the nightgown she wears seem like an evening dress in those moments she makes the effort to be appealing.

The play is entrancing and Ruth Wilson is exceptionally and without doubt at the heart of and the highlight of this production, every bit as mesmerising as I thought she would be from watching her plucky Jane in the BBC’s Jane Eyre and her shiny-eyed intriguing entirely unpredictable psychopath Alice in Luther. She entirely deserved the Olivier nomination for Best Actress. This is Ivo van Hove’s National Theatre debut and it was my (if depressing) theatrical highlight of the first quarter of 2017. And not just because the tomato juice.