Hedda Gabler

Ibsen's classic at The Lowry, Salford is given a topical twist when Judge Brack tries to blackmail Hedda into an affair

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When playwright Tennessee Williams watched Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in 1970 he reportedly spent the whole night in hysterics. He found Ibsen’s protagonist ridiculous – from her self-delusions to her pathetic clutches at power to her final attempt to escape from the boredom that engulfs her during her short but comfortable life.

The plot follows newly married Hedda as she fails to settle into married life with her reliable but dull husband Tesman. The protagonist is suffocated by the light in her new home, the smell of flowers, the interfering aunt. When Hedda’s former lover Eilert Lovborg arrives back on the scene she is given a new purpose – to manipulate and destroy those around her – but she doesn’t plan on sticking around long enough to pay the price.

The National Theatre’s production of the classic drama is given a revamp by Olivier-winning playwright Patrick Marber and director Ivo van Hove with minimalist staging reminiscent of an Ikea magazine, but the one object from Hedda’s former life remains centre stage – her piano.

She revels in her unhappiness and claws back power in the most self-destructive way possible

The daughter of a general, Hedda, played by Lizzy Watts, longs for the extravagances of a more luxurious existence: horses, a butler, perhaps her own salon. Realising her academic husband is unable to provide her with the lifestyle she desires she spends her days sleeping and lamenting over how bored she is.

The play is unexpectedly funny. Marber’s reworking of the script lends Hedda a few comical moments despite the darkness of the plot, and there are times when you can understand Williams’s bemused reaction to the character. Her cruelty comes from a place of deep boredom, yet her comments are witty, her tactics extreme. She chooses not to walk away from the life she claims to detest. Instead she revels in her unhappiness and claws back power in the most self-destructive way possible.

For Hedda life is a farce not worth seeing through to the end, and her plight is accompanied by Joni Mitchell’s Blue at points throughout the production, highlighting the character’s inner confusion and mental anguish despite her role as the instigator of her downfall.

The character’s interaction with Judge Brack (Adam West), who tries to blackmail her, provides a difficult and ugly scene that is a topical reminder of the headlines leaking out of the entertainment industry and Parliament. The story is one of power and control, a subject that has been given more prominence and consideration in recent weeks, bringing the classic tale bang up to date.

Hedda Gabler is currently touring the UK

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