Ruth Wilson has that rare ability to fill a theatre with a performance so subtle, it could be on screen. From the start of her career she has shown a particular talent for bringing classic leading roles to a contemporary audience and as Hedda, she strikes again, with a psychological realism perfectly suited to Patrick Marber’s new version of Ibsen’s classic.

Marber’s text is crisp, clean and often very funny. Sometimes the Hedda Gabler of my memory disappeared altogether into Ivan Van Hove’s aesthetically cool, contemporary production designed by Jan Versweyveld. Yet it still burns with an unwavering intensity as the characters cross in and out the white gallery space of the newlyweds flat, buzzing the video entry phone to gain access.

The set looks like a fashion shoot, has little in the way of furniture and the dramatic, symbolic use of lighting has the affect of focussing on the shapes the characters make in space. Light pours in from the sliding windows, casting huge shadows that only change when a character closes a door or window. Verseweyveld’s set and lighting design is achingly stylish yet nothing is extraneous to the drama. Unlike the others who can come and go, Hedda never leaves is trapped inside the empty box that never becomes a home. The guns in the glass cabinet are the only decoration until, filled with impotent rage she hurls flowers across the space before violently stapling them by their necks to the walls.

Kyle Soller brings a deeply sympathetic new life to the role of Tesman, Hedda’s husband. Whilst Ruth Wilson has taken on the part every actress longs for, the same could not be said for her potentially dismal other half. But Soller’s Tesman is touchingly child-like in his love for his aunt (Kate Duchene), seemingly suspended in grief for his parents who left him to young and he is frequently very funny. A favourite moment is his return from all night partying with a bowl of noodles and some perfectly timed hung over pauses. Whilst Hedda is enraged by his obsessive academic outlook, we are touched by his passion and respect for his competitors work.

Transporting Hedda away from her context where 19 century restrictions are presumably no longer in place is a bold move. Would she still feel so trapped if she could get a job and leave her marriage? For me, Van Hove’s production and Wilson’s characterisation makes it seem perfectly feasible. Two women Hedda and Mrs Elvsted (Sinead Matthews) are married to men they don’t love and have very little in common with. ‘I needed to settle and I settled for him’ Hedda casually reveals and of course there are plenty of people who still do that. Mrs Elvsted falls for someone else, finds work for herself and leaves her husband whereas privileged, beautiful Hedda who is clearly angry and unstable sets out to destroy herself and those around her. Then of course there’s Brack (Rafe Spall) who has an increasingly violent hold over Hedda. These situations will always exist, these personalities don’t need a particular social context.

If you can’t get tickets for this extraordinary new version, it’s being broadcast by NT Live on 9 March 2017.
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