Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Hedda Gabbler: National Theatre on Tour

Gary Day’s insistence that tragedy emerged from sacrificial ritual becomes increasingly problematic in his reading of Hedda Gabler. Recognising that Ibsen’s interest in naturalism – ‘the scientific observation of ‘real’ people… who speak and dress in a ‘realistic manner’ (2016: 132) does away with the religious trappings and the necessity of sacrifice, Day identifies Gabler’s universe is ‘approaching the world of Beckett where we are waiting for things to wind down and where there will be no new beginning… there is no scapegoat who can purge (society)’ (2016: 133). Indeed, he concludes that Hedda’s suicide at the end of the play evokes the murder of Clytemnestra in the Oresteia, a death that removes an obstacle to patriarchal power and is the opposite to the redemptive sacrifice at the heart of ritual.

Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabbler (National Theatre, 2017) does offer a reconciliation between Day’s notion of the tragic and Ibsen’s naturalism. Using a translation of Ibsen’s script by Patrick Maber, he strips away the period detail in the scenography and locates the action in a vaguely contemporary setting. Van Hove’s direction vacillates between the measured naturalism of the script – Adam Best portrays Brack as a thuggish rapist who hides behind a veneer of louche sophistication – and a more symbolic dramaturgy which concludes with Hedda’s suicide enacted on stage, contrary to the source script, and the other characters arranged, in silhouette, facing her dead body. The pistols that will eventually be used for the suicide are placed on the wall of the set, encased in a cabinet and clearly on display in a very literal placement of the ‘Chekhov’s gun’ trope – emphasising the tragic inevitability of the deaths in the way that Brecht found objectionable in the Aristotelian tradition. When Brack threatens Hedda, he pours tomato juice over her white dress, making the violence of his threats as explicit as blood flowing from her body.

The challenge of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler lies in the tension between the conduct of the protagonist – she is manipulative, deceitful and desperate for a life that she cannot have – and her punishment in the final act. Having manufactured the suicide of her ex-lover Lovborg, she is trapped in a loveless relationship as her husband is now collaborating with Hedda’s rival and Brack’s intention to ‘visit’ her as a companion in her husband’s absence: van Hove’s production has made it clear that this would mean repeated sexual assaults. Hedda’s decision to commit suicide and to make it ‘beautiful’ – that is, to find the meaning in a clean death that has been denied her in life – mirrors the botched suicide of her ex-lover. In her death, she attains the dignity that her character has denied her.

Van Hove articulates this tension by a shift from a naturalistic approach for the first acts
– despite the sparse scenography, which takes it cues from comments made by Hedda and her husband that they cannot afford to furnish their flat – and moving towards symbolism in the final third. Using Joni Mitchell’s Blue as a repeated motif, the production stresses Hedda’s alienation, and clumsily foreshadows several dramatic moments: the suicides through the guns, the burning of her ex-lover’s manuscript by the maid slowly lighting a fire at the start of Act II, Hedda’s death in the trail of tomato juice. Hedda’s behaviour is presented without apology. She taunts Mrs Elvsted for her beauty, encourages Lovborg to drink heavily – knowing that it would destroy him – and mocks her husband’s claims on her body. Lizzy Watt’s performance has a whirling energy, as she dominates conversations, makes little effort to charm her companions and is quite obvious in her insincerity. That Mrs Elvsted could fall for her deception only reveals how naïve Lovborg’s lover (and co-author) must be. Hedda is a monster of vanity, and despite references to her father as a man of status, and a few insights into her loveless and sexless marriage, the script offers little explanation for her behaviour.

It’s only towards the finale that Hedda elicits sympathy, and this is as much to do with Ibsen’s adaptation of the tragic format as her situation. A brutal reading of the play could emphasise Hedda’s responsibility for her fate: her attempted, childish rebellion against social mores only enmeshes her in its less charitable snares. Yet from the report of Lovborg’s suicide – presented by Brack in a heartless messenger speech – Hedda’s decline to death takes on the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Like Oedipus, Hedda awaits news – the detail of Lovborg’s suicide, which she hopes will be ‘beautiful’ – and the news, far from redeeming her, crushes her hopes. Brack then spells out to her the detail of her future oppression – a sexual relationship with him, once posed as a sophisticated dalliance, is now a compulsory payment for his silence on her complicity in Lovborg’s death. Meanwhile, her husband abandons her for Mrs Elvstead: although they are working together on completing Lovborg’s manuscript, Annabel Bates lends Mrs Elvstead an innocent flirtatious charm that clearly displaces Hedda in her husband’s affections. It is as if Hedda is being shown the tools of the torture, and Brack’s wry statement that he intends to ‘occupy her fully’ has the overtones of a judicial sentence, lascivious and fatal.

It’s in these scenes that van Hove abandons the naturalism for a more ritualistic drama. The characters take on the aura of archetypes: Brack the compromised and self-serving magistrate, Hedda the victim of patriarchy, Mrs Elvstead the innocent who is protected and rewarded by society. Death becomes, if not redemptive, at least meaningful. And with the pistols hung boldly on the wall from the very beginning of Act I, all of this is inevitable. The production signposts the fatalism so clearly that it is as if it has taken Brecht’s complaint against ritualistic tragedy and amplified it even to the point of parody.

Van Hove draws out the problems of Ibsen’s use of both naturalism and tragic form: Hedda is both an object for sympathy and a description of a particular rebellion against the constraints of society. By abandoning the detail of Victorian society for its vague contemporary feel, van Hove dislocates the events into the tragic abstract, exposing Ibsen’s reliance on the traditions that he aimed to replace. The production’s dramaturgy speaks of the influence of Aristotle, Brecht and even absurdist nihilism, without settling on a single dominant dramaturgy. Hedda’s behaviour denies her the ‘purity’ of the scapegoat – hence Day’s problem with her sacrifice – but she undeniably becomes a victim of a system that demands her submission. Her suicide – elegantly performed, a statement of refusal – partakes in both the political as an act of revolution against oppression, and the nihilistic, a rejection of life’s innate worth and value. Her life, on the other hand, was a petty rebellion, ill-informed, malicious and barely aware of the constraints that contained it. Her death is a lesson that her life could not teach.

And perhaps Day’s description of Hedda’s suicide as ‘another version of the sacrifice of Clytemnestra… no one will be held to account for it’ (2016:135) misses something. A play is not merely a ‘report’ but as Brecht puts it a ‘live representation’ (Short Organum, 1964:180). Eric Bentley (The Life of the Drama, 1983) grapples with Brecht’s political stances, defending it as ‘employed in what doctrinaires on both sides might call subterfuge and evasion, rather than celebration of the true faith’ (1964:141): in the same way, Ibsen’s feminist intentions, explicit in the suicide but occluded in the ugliness of Hedda’s character, refuse to compromise his depiction of a woman caught in patriarchy but unable to formulate a mature resistance. That she relies on stereotypical ‘feminine wiles’ rather than a robust attack, that she is painted as mean-spirited and trivial only serves to broaden the play and offer a dialectic of which Brecht, Marx or Hegel would be proud. Hedda’s sacrifice is not intended to redeem those within the play, but demonstrate to the auditorium.

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