Hedda Gabler: without the gloss

Gun pointing in Hedda Gabler

Patrick Marber and Ivo Van Hove’s take on Isben’s iconic character is a great adaptation, but also an uncomfortable one. Here’s why it has to be uncomfortable to watch.

This is a new thing in my blog: for the very first time, I’ve got to put a content warning on a review. I have a policy that this blog does not use content warnings when common sense would do the job. Content warnings serve one purpose and one purpose only, which is that if something is coming that one could reasonably expect some people to find distressing, you give an advance warning. Said people can then choose whether to stop reading, or brace themselves and carry on. Most of the time, the title and opening paragraph make it obvious enough. If I review Romeo and Juliet, it’s going to have references to suicide. If I review To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s going to have references to racism. There’s no point warning people you’re going to mention something sensitive if it involves mentioning the very thing you’re trying to warn people about.

But there is an important difference here. So far, whenever I’ve talked about a play with upsetting themes, I’ve only ever had to touch on them in the review – the full harrowing details can stay in the play itself. This review, however, is different. The National Theatre’s production of Hedda Gabler was on of its most successful productions, ending a run of disappointments. But it was also one of its most controversial productions because of its depiction of sexual coercion. This needs talking about, and in order to that, we also have to talk about some horrible things that happen in real life. This will come later in the review, but it will come. Consider this your content warning.

So, on to the play. This is a version by Patrick Marber. The big challenge with any production of Hedda Gabler, original or adaptation, is keeping it believable. Hedda is a reckless character, but she’s not blindly reckless, and however self-destructive she gets in the last 24 hours of her life, there is always a reason why. Ibsen’s original script establishes that she’s bored because she married an academic. George isn’t cruel or neglectful as such, but he’s far more in love with his work and only got married for status and expectations. What Marber does well is pick up on mental cues. When Hedda realises that old schoolmate Thea is practically an academic soulmate to her former lover Eilert, her jealousy shows through and helps explain why she’d rather destroy Eilert than lose him to someone else. One theme that is common through Marber’s plays is quiet menace. This is no exception, and in the mind-games that power-struggles that follow, this touch suits the play very well.

The credit for keeping Hedda believable can be shared with director Ivo van Hove, but he most noticeably leaves his mark with a trademark style. Colourfully-dressed characters against a white room form something stylish and striking, and the lighting and sound is also a distinct style. The thing which is more a matter of personal taste, however, is the surrealism. For a start, the one-stage piano frequently plays itself. When Hedda throws flowers all over the room, the next seen proceeds like the mess isn’t there. The maid perpetually sits on stage even when characters make intimate exchanges they obviously wouldn’t do with someone watching. That, I understand, represents the ever-present maid, and all of the other impossible things are presumably representational too. Either you will like this or you won’t, but if that’s not your thing, it doesn’t interfere with the play. There is just one thing at the end which could be an issue. I’ll come back to this later.

One thing I am obliged to point out is an issue with the touring set. The stage at York Opera House is slightly smaller than the set, and consequently some actions were hidden off-stage to a substantial portion of the audience. I would normally let something like this go for a touring production, that has to adapt to different stages very quickly, but a company of the calibre of the National Theatre should really have thought of this problem, and to let something like that happen was needless and sloppy. It doesn’t spoil the play, but it was frustrating to see something like this happen when it’s so easy to address.

However, that’s just a small fish to fry. Now for the controversial bit.

A later scene bewteen Hedda and BrackThe bit that some people are unhappy with is what happens between Hedda Gabler and her unscrupulous friend Judge Brack. In hindsight, the most naive thing Hedda does is trust a man who boasts of all the affairs we has with other men’s wives – that should have been a big red flag of what he’s really doing. In the original script, written for a far more conservative world, that’s about as far as it goes, and the way he betrays her trust at the end is very understated. In this version, Judge Brack is basically committing sexual assault and getting away with it. Understandably, not everyone’s comfortable with that.

In the wake of Weinstein and co, there’s been a lot of talk about the depiction of sexual violence in the media. Obviously anyone who finds a depiction objectionable doesn’t have to watch it, but even so, there are some serious questions that need asking. For what it’s worth, I’d take a good look at horror films that portray rape as titillating (not as bad as it used to be, but still enough to be concerning), but that’s a discussion for elsewhere. However, the broad principle for any kind of uncomfortable content – and the ending of this version of Hedda Gabler certainly is uncomfortable – is that there needs to be a good reason why it’s necessary in the context of the story. And from this point on, I am going to be giving my interpretation of what I saw, which may or may not be the same as the writer and director. It is my view, to give the message this play intended to give, it was broadly necessary to edit it the way it ended.

To understand the ending, you have to understand the kind of monster Marber and van Hove’s Judge Brack is. There is a theory that the worst sexual predators are not creeps who don’t understand no, nor are they men desperate to get their end away. No, for these people it’s all about control. It doesn’t matter whether the one of the receiving end would have said yes given the choice; the whole idea is that the victim doesn’t have a choice. Which goes some way to explaining the actions of Weinstein and co. One would think that anyone that rich and that powerful would have more than enough willing and able women to pick from; but that’s not enough. Instead you get coercion such as this tape (warning for anyone doesn’t know: VERY uncomfortable listening), and, presumably, a lot more like that not caught on tape.

This, I think, is the difference that’s portrayed here. In this version, Hedda and Brack are very close. It’s not clear whether they Brack has a physical relationship with Hedda, but if he doesn’t, it seems that all he’d have to do is ask. But, of course, it’s not about asking, it’s about forcing, and blackmail is simply the opportunity he wanted. The physical contact at the end of the play is not much different to the contact at the beginning – after all, Hedda and Brack are comfortable enough pointing guns at each other’s heads – but when consent is replaced with coercion, it’s a very different experience. As hinted earlier in hindsight, Brack can get away with it by gaining the trust and friendship of George, who, for all his faults as a husband, should have been the first person to protect Hedda. Again, unfortunately, that’s not too different from real life. Predators don’t just groom the victim, they groom the people close to the victim too, be it spouse, friends or parents, or anyone else who cares for the victim and needs to be kept unaware.

Where the ending might run into issues is the aforementioned surrealism. Most of the content, however disturbing, can be defended with the argument that it’s only showing things as they are in real life. But once you go into surrealism, that argument doesn’t work. The ending where Brack takes out a can and pours it over Hedda as blood could be seen as sensationalising for the sake of sensationalising, and it’s hard to argue against that when the act was entirely symbolic. I didn’t consider that objectionable myself, but I can understand why other people might.

It seems, however, that the critics of the National’s Hedda Gabler have forgotten an important point: depiction is not endorsement. Natasha Tripney said that this play reinforces the idea of women as objects, as flesh, as property. I disagree. I think – and I can speak for 99% who saw this with me – the play reinforces the idea that seeing women as objects, flesh or property is bad. Sure, the conventional version of the play gives that message too. But artists do not and must not have a duty to gloss and sanitise the horrors of real life, because one of the ways of fighting it is to show them for the terrible things they are. All Marber and van Hove have done is taken Ibsen classic, and un-glossed and un-sanitised the subject material. Will this upset some people in a way the original didn’t? Yes. Should the National Theatre have done more to warn prospective theatregoers what to expect? Maybe. But does it lose any of the message of what’s right and what’s wrong? Of course not. And in the end, that’s what matters the most.

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