The Beautiful Bitch: Hedda Gabler, National Theatre

We’ve seen her before, countless times, the beautiful bitch. We dislike her because she’s mean and we envy her because she’s beautiful and somehow the latter gives her license to be the former and that mostly fucks us right off. A distant cousin to the femme fatale she features regularly in the movies. Think Regina George in Mean Girls, Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, Lisa Rowe in Girl, Interrupted, Lauren Bacall just generally. On stage, the label could reasonably apply to characters such as Medea, Lady Macbeth, Masha in The Three Sisters or the Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (ie. coke-sniffing Kathryn from Cruel Intentions). However, Hedda Gabler, the eponymous hero of Henrik Ibsen’s much-performed play first seen in 1891, takes the bitch biscuit. She is intelligent, beautiful, mercurial, manipulative, beastly and depressed eventually succumbing to annihilation, in an archetypal move, by shooting herself dead with one of her father’s pistols as the curtain comes down. Sorry, spoiler.

There’s no curtain naturally in the latest production of Ibsen’s play at the National Theatre. It’s Dutch-director extraordinaire Ivo van Hove so the actors eerily peel themselves from their final positions and somnambulate to the front of the stage. It’s only then the audience realises, oh we clap now. Show over. Nina Simone on the stereo. In a charismatic performance Ruth Wilson’s incarnation oscillates between petulant childish tantrums and introspective desperate yearning. She never overplays her hand but instead seems to be constantly shifting position, like an emotional Rubik’s Cube searching for the right combination to lift her out of her misery.

Ruth Wilson as Hedda in the National Theatre’s 2016/17 production. Image from here.

The National Theatre’s production of this master work famed for the mistress at its heart is excellent. It moves through the play like one wades through water, with exceeding balance and strength. It has been mostly stripped of its melodramatic overtones and the beats of the action stretched out to a hollowed-out drawl. The lighting design shifts from dappled sunlight to dusky darkness and intense gold to bright white throughout the course of the play acting as a visual signifier as to the mood of the action. However, what I would really to discuss is accusations of sexism levelled against the production and a particular scene that has caused some consternation amongst critics and audiences alike.

So Brack is a creep but he’s never been so grossly realised as here. Rafe Spall is really quite perfectly cast (sorry Rafe). He’s in love with Hedda. Apparently every one is or was at one point (de rigueur for the beautiful bitch). His aim is to control Hedda and he plans to achieve that aim through intimidation and aggression — twin vices of a chauvinist nightmare. In a scene towards the end of a play he ritually humiliates her in quite a nasty manner.

Ruth Wilson and Rafe Spall as Hedda and Brack. Image from here.

Now this is where a lot of people have stepped off the train. This kind of ritualistic humiliation of a woman’s body held up for titillation is boring at best and sexist at worst. There is absolutely no objectively correct answer on this and I’m not casting aspersions on anyone offended by this production but what I think it really all comes down to is context and intention.

Bitch really is the perfect word for how Hedda has been viewed traditionally by the men and women that surround her. It’s a loaded term that when deployed immediately invites the response best verbalised by Queen Latifah’s perfect spit: ‘Who you callin’ a bitch?!’ from her classic anthem U.N.I.T.Y. Hedda’s beauty has also trapped her in amber to be constantly pawed by men and cold-shouldered by women. What van Hove does to great effect is to show you the context behind Hedda’s existence. She is fawned over by her husband Tesman, objectified by admirer Brack and idealised by Løvborg, her former flame. Men cannot see past the romanticised version of her so it necessarily follows that she would externalise such wearing objectification and turn it against others as some way of gaining back some power over her life. The one thing she prizes above all is courage, a quality she frequently intimates that she lacks much to her disgust. People often call van Hove a minimalist heralding his stripped-back approach to classic texts. They may physically look sparse but they are grandiloquent in gesture. He takes the subtext and translates it into a singular visual. It’s why you probably won’t catch him directing comedy any time soon, he seems to strive to achieve the terrible beauty that tragedy provides. A bit like Hedda herself.

The main cast of Hedda Gabler in the final scene. Image from here.

The second thing to mention is intention. The offending scene between Brack and Hedda feels acceptable to me because the intention is clearly to honestly show how chauvinist behaviour degrades women to the point of annihilation. Hedda’s suicide feels completely understandable given the careful unpacking that van Hove and his cast have done in the preceding scenes. He is making a serious point about depression and how it can mutate a person into such unlikable and vulnerable forms that it allows the people around them to either brush them off or to take hideous advantage. Joni Mitchell’s Blue is used as a score between the scenes just in case this wasn’t clear enough. On the nose some might say but another example of van Hove’s grand gesture — who else but Joni could crystallise female despair so perfectly? That piano. Woman talking to women. There’s a reason why Richard Curtis uses her to soundtrack the only part of Love, Actually that actually communicates anything real. Contrast this scene with the one in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals with its artfully placed cadavers of a woman and her child. I agree that the gesture of violence against woman is offensive when it is empty, such as in Ford’s film, but otherwise I think it’s vital that art still confronts this issue because it’s still happening. All the time. Everywhere.

I was inspired to write this piece by two excellent pieces of theatre journalism, one from either side of the debate, so do check these out if you’re interested:
Natasha Tripney for The Stage
Lyn Gardner for The Guardian

Also for kicks this excoriating review of Nocturnal Animals by Victoria Coren Mitchell for The Guardian