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BWW Review: HEDDA GABLER, National Theatre

Ibsen's Hedda has been called the female Hamlet and not just because it's a role that every serious actress wants to play. The blank at the heart of her presents a daunting challenge. Why is she so unhappy? Why is she, frankly, such a bitch? The text leaves much unanswered, and every director, every Hedda, must join the dots in their own way.

It's a task made harder in Ivo van Hove's contemporary production, mounted twice before, in New York and Amsterdam, but now using a new translation by Patrick Marber. Positioning Hedda and her husband Tesman in a smart new-build apartment - we're guessing Manhattan or Noughties Shoreditch - and having Tesman scoff takeaway noodles after his night on the tiles, we're presented with a modern couple, a modern marriage. This in theory gives any number of options to a young wife who, not long back from her honeymoon, is already rattling the cage. Why, you want to shout at Ruth Wilson's languid form as she kicks at the ends of the sofa or doodles mindlessly at the living-room piano, don't you get yourself a bloody job!

'Wherefore the update', then, is the topic that will dominate interval chatter throughout the Lyttelton run. By half-time, the struggle to make sense of Hedda's predicament 100 years outside its time is starting to seem perverse. But hang in there, ignore the trumpetings of the various elephants in the room, and van Hove's strategy comes good. I would even suggest that without his stripping down of Hedda to her Coco de Mer satin slip, without his making her a modern woman, the production would not achieve its climax with such direct and devastating force.

Some may resist the typical Van Hove trimmings: the insertion of the Joni Mitchell song "Blue", not once but three times and very loud; the maddening insistence of two repeated piano chords under long stretches of dialogue; the gratuitous hint of sexual collusion between Hedda and her housekeeper; the emptiness of the stage, the filling of it with mess and gore.

At one point Hedda complains of "the stench" of flowers in her home, resenting the bouquets sent by well-wishers. When she trashes the place, staple-gunning blooms to the walls like Ophelia on a rampage, we smell them too. This is a multi-sensory show.

Ruth Wilson's unusual qualities are grist to van Hove's radicalism. Tall, strong, athletic, she's a creature of 21st-century stamp who punches the air when she scores a psychological goal, sprints around the room out of sheer high spirits. Yet her face can turn a scowl into a default setting. And she is stunning when, at a verbal trigger from another character, she draws your gaze to hers and makes you think you see what's going on behind it.

She can be subtle, too, revealing in momentary lapses her jealousy of Mrs Elvsted (Sinead Matthews), the old schoolfriend who has smashed convention and made something of her life, and also her muddled feelings for the dashing Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji), an ex-boyfriend now her husband's arch professional rival.

It's curious that Marber, in creating this otherwise convincing version of the text, didn't update all the characters' names. Mrs Elvsted is a double anachronism having long since done a runner from married life, and surely a liberal-intellectual household like the Tesmans' wouldn't stand on ceremony. Judge Brack, though, becomes plain Brack, whose obnoxiousness in Rafe Spall is wonderfully under-the-skin. In his announcement that he adores his circle of married friends - "but generally prefers the wives" - we almost hear him unzipping his flies.

The role of Tesman, Hedda's talentless husband, is unrewarding by definition, but Kyle Soller does a good line in wince-worthy Friends-style urban bonhomie, forever nipping out to supply guests with "nibbles". While he embarrasses Hedda with his too-public pride in her sexual attractiveness, we don't need to be told what Hedda thinks of his.

In all, there is not an inch of territory that escapes van Hove's microscope, nor a verbal convention that escapes Marber's. To their credit, both are content to leave some questions unanswered. In the end, this isn't a play about a woman who wants to leave her husband, nor a play about a woman trapped by society's demands. It's a play about a woman who has sleep-walked into a hell of her own making, and that can happen to anyone in any place at any time.

Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre, booking in rep to 21 March, 2017. It will be broadcast to cinemas around the world on 9 March, with encore performances from 23 March

Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld

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