Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 27 February, 2008

Director Thomas Ostermeier seems, on the basis of those of his productions which visit Britain from his base at the Schaubühne in Berlin, to be revolve-happy. His sets keep rotating; we get to see the action from all angles… aided, in this instance, by a set of mirrors canted overhead, so that even when characters are not directly visible we follow them in reflection; they have nowhere to hide. That’s rather a problem at the climax of Hedda Gabler, as the protagonist shoots herself offstage, and here there is no offstage. For this moment, Ostermeier is scrupulous with the angles of set and mirror, though whether he means it to be significant that this is the only moment we lose sight of a character, or whether it is simply a convenient cheat, I could not say.
When Ostermeier’s production of Nora (A Doll’s House) visited the Barbican a few years ago, it divided critics strongly. His Hedda is less extreme, but it is no less powerful a modernisation. Jorgen and Hedda Tesman live in a modern, glass-walled house; people make mobile phone calls rather than sending servants with notes; and Hedda does not feed Eilert Løvborg’s precious manuscript into the stove, but rather takes a hammer to the laptop computer on which its files are stored. None of this updating is gratuitously modish; rather, it serves to emphasise how the matters at the core of the plot – financial and social debt, professional rivalries and personal reputations – have not significantly changed in the 120 years since Ibsen wrote his play (which Marius von Mayenburg’s eminently playable German version fillets down to just over two hours of continuous action).
Katharina Schüttler is first seen as Hedda in her sleepwear, with a bare midriff showing between crop-top and sweatpants; it is hard to believe that she is the daughter of a general, though highly plausible that she is a former wild child who hitched her star to Lars Eidinger’s stolid Tesman because she saw prospects of achievement in him. Surely she could never have nursed a passion for Løvborg as incarnated in Kay Bartholomäus Schulze, a bloodless figure whom even video projections between scenes cannot portray as Dionysian; it’s a good thing von Mayenburg’s text loses all those metaphorical references to Løvborg with vine leaves in his hair. More alluring is the lecherous lawyer Brack as played by Jörg Hartmann... an actor who is younger than Schulze, giving a twist to the dynamic between Hedda’s extra-marital interests.
But, these character cavils aside, the production moves with a beautiful inexorability towards a conclusion which Ostermeier successfully reinvests with shock. The strains of Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows” are used to exquisitely ironic effect, and the director even allows himself a smirk of self-referentiality with a blast of “Rockstar” by N*E*R*D, a song deployed to punishing effect in Nora. Much of Ostermeier’s sensibility was formed by Germany’s enthusiastic adoption in the 1990s of the “in-yer-face” drama of Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill et al.; but scarcely any British director has plugged that aesthetic back into classic texts with anything like as much potency.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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