Before the lights go down over the audience, Ruth Wilson’s magnetism surges on stage. She’s slouched over the piano, appearing headless as she presses on the keys in a deliberate, unpredictable way. The woman she becomes—the woman she effortlessly embodies—is newlywed Hedda Gabler, a “magnificent” and “lovely” wife, but also clearly someone who wants more: more excitement, control, influence and power.
It’s a story, originally written by Henrik Ibsen in 1890, centered on Hedda’s disinterest not only with her marriage but also with her seemingly ineffective position between the past and present. Alongside her cold numbness, however, is this active involvement in other people’s lives. She is personable yet unkind, manipulative yet blunt. This has always been Hedda’s nature, but Patrick Marber‘s adaptation and Wilson give her new life.
She is a raw, spellbinding Hedda from the moment she slumps in the piano stool all the way to the last line. The no-frills play—a bare backdrop of Hedda and her husband’s, Tesman’s (Kyle Soller), new home—also lets Wilson freely put Hedda’s complex persona on full display. Whether she runs her hand angrily through thick white blinds in the living room, rips out flowers from their containers and flings them everywhere, or sits with her legs twisted around one another like boa constrictors, she doesn’t drop the audience’s gaze for a minute.
The secondary roles are engaging as well, except Tesman is almost too unaware of his marriage’s poor state and too naive when discussing his professional—“boring”—aspirations with Hedda. Brack (Rafe Spall), on the other hand, is the perfectly corrupt judge and confidant of Hedda and Tesman. His gestures are grand but intentional. At times he is sexually inappropriate or firm with Hedda, but she never lets him get away with, or in the way of, anything; she prefers to be in charge, of pistols and people.
Hedda’s “poorness of spirit”, as she calls it, and fierceness of character is made complete with little things: recurring music, scattered flower petals, a burning fire. Under the brilliant direction of Ivo van Hove, these smaller elements balance beauty with shock, sorrow with joy and secrets with sincerity. In the end, however, there’s no better match for Hedda than the exceptional and enchanting Wilson.
Hedda Gabler is playing at the National Theatre until March 21st and will be on tour in the UK starting October 2017.