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Ruth Wilson stars in Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre

Hedda Gabler PosterContrary to so many readings of this Ibsen classic, with the heroine imprisoned by her corsetry as much as by the institution of marriage, director Ivo Van Hove places her in a dressing gown. When this comes off, nothing but her slip is showing. As for her home, designer Jan Versweyveld has made it a pale and barren oblong with little in the way of furniture, let alone comfort. Social realism this is not, given that Hedda’s lineage is aristocratic, bringing with it the kind of problems usually associated with surfeit rather than privation.

Yet the emotional realism of such a setting is both apt and intense since this Hedda’s crises do seem to spring from what today’s parenthood professionals would call a lack of boundaries. For Ruth Wilson’s remarkable performance emphasises the character’s apartness from the mould of the New Woman so prevalent when Ibsen was writing. Here she is a sort of counter-revolutionary asserting the rights of sensuous fulfilment over anything resembling gender correctness.

The result is a divine sluttishness, and if the single-minded pursuit of hedonism can be called heroic, then heroine she is. And if she is indeed that thing, it follows that her fall bears a tragic dimension rather than just the wages of indulgence. This is as much a challenge to the onlooker’s tolerance as to the actor’s craft, and it is to Ruth Wilson’s great credit that she brings such pathos to the part. Her alternation between savagery and fragility is chilling, one minute destroying her ex-lover’s irreplaceable manuscript by fire, the next collapsing in suicidal despair.

In Van Hove’s and Versweyveld’s scheme, there is indeed room for claustrophia – it would be hard to imagine a Hedda without it in view of the play’s own home-groundedness – but it is achieved through unusual means; some exits and entrances are made not directly from the stage but via a side aisle of the auditorium. These have the effect of leaving Hedda stranded as if in another world.

How to revolve around the dark stardom created by Wilson’s performance as a Hedda unbalanced by needfulness to the point of lunacy? The task falls largely to three men. There is her inevitably hapless husband, Tesman, played with well-judged inadequacy by Kyle Soller; her former lover Lovborg, whom Chukwudi Iwuji portrays as if still infected by her madness; and the eerie, promiscuous figure of Brack, to whom Rafe Spall brings ominous powers of control over the doomed menage. To say nothing of Sinead Matthews as the quietly essential figure of Mrs. Elvsted, Hedda’s bringer of something close to comfort.

There’s a problem with the play, more social than dramatic. The better, the stronger, the more vivid the Hedda, the less she invokes our sympathy. A likely reason for this is that the damage – whether inherited or acquired or a bit of both – has been done before we come on the scene. By the time we’re involved, the self-destructiveness and – forgive the modern word – dysfunction are such that we really should be herding them all off to an alcohol treatment centre.

Instead, we find ourselves powerlessly watching the arrival of consequences rather than a struggle for outcome. Wilson’s enormous strength and variation are in the service of the woman’s flaws. There is nothing that Patrick Marber’s version of the script – taut and forthright as it is – can do to dodge the same function. The irony of all this is that the brilliance of these contributions – and Wilson’s performance is nothing less than that – make you doubt the famous greatness of the play and place it beneath A Doll’s House and The Wild Duck.

4 stars

Review by Alan Franks

Hedda Gabler
Just married. Bored already. Hedda longs to be free…
Ivo van Hove (A View from the Bridge) – one of the world’s most exciting directors – makes his National Theatre debut with a modern production of Ibsen’s masterpiece.

This vital new version by Patrick Marber (Closer, Three Days in the Country) features Ruth Wilson (Luther, The Affair) in the title role and Rafe Spall (Black Mirror, The Big Short) as Brack.

Production Team
Director – Ivo van Hove
Set and Lighting Designer – Jan Versweyveld
Costume Designer – An D’Huys
Sound Designer – Tom Gibbons

Cast: Harry Anton, Annabel Bates, Robert Bradley, Ebony Buckle, Miriam Cooper, Kate Duchêne, Chukwudi Iwuji, Jason Langley, Éva Magyar, Sinéad Matthews, Kyle Soller, Rafe Spall, Ruth Wilson.

NT Live: Hedda Gabler
National Theatre Live will broadcast Hedda Gabler to over 650 cinemas across the UK, and more internationally, on Thursday 9 March 2017. Selected venues will also showing Encore screenings.

Hedda Gabler
by Henrik Ibsen
in a new version by Patrick Marber
New performances now on sale
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 mins inc. interval


  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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