Patrick Marber’s re-working of Hedda Gabler attracted rave reviews during its sold-out run at the National Theatre, but many of them centred around the performance of that version’s leading lady, Ruth Wilson. For a play that revolves so completely around its anti-heroic title character, a new actress in those shoes means a very different show, with no guarantee of the same success.

Happily, Lizzy Watts makes Hedda her own in this touring version. Backed by a strong new supporting cast, she plays a woman who is three-dimensional and complicated; unlikeable yet compelling in her beauty but also in her wit and fiery energy. After a somewhat stilted first 15 minutes or so, Ivo van Hove’s production rattles along with plenty of straightforwardly-good story-telling, forcing its audience to invest even in characters they don’t warm to.

Review: Hedda Gabler The Lowry, SalfordIbsen’s classic play about female desire, and the compromises and constraints of marriage, still resonates 126 years after it was first performed. Modern audiences will recognise the trade-off that Hedda has made – swapping edgy romance and youthful freedom for marital security that she then finds stifling and dull – but these days that trade is not exclusive to women. Gone are the corsets and the Victorian living room – the action takes place entirely in a modern, urban uber-apartment with stark (prison-like) lines and an abrasive intercom – and, with the updating, some if not all of the social entrapment that Hedda could once legitimately have felt has also gone.

One feels sorry for the newly-wed as she is poked and patted by curious hands in search of a baby bump, but not for the capable and intelligent young woman who mopes around her domestic cage feeling lonely rather than powering up her iPhone to connect with the world, or getting a job. Meanwhile, Marber has so successfully modernised Ibsen’s original that some of the details that have been conserved for plot purposes, such as Lovborg’s paper manuscript and Thea Elvsted’s need for an escort home, feel anachronistic. 

And yet many of us will know people who have hints of Hedda. She is so in love with the notion of “living fully”, of beauty and drama and tragedy, that she detests reality, and the mundane truth that happiness, like the rest of life, takes work. Her devotion to a romantic ideal is in parts alluring – who doesn’t want to cast off the shackles sometimes? – and yet selfish, cowardly and ultimately self-destructive. It is the much-derided ‘duller’ characters Tesman and Thea, prepared to work together and rebuild, who end the play literally piecing together a vision of the future.

By Fran Yeoman

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Hedda Gabler National TheatreHedda Gabler is at The Lowry, Salford until November 4, 2017 and then on tour. For Lowry tickets, click here.