I'm not usually a fan of European-style 'director's theatre' but I'm prepared to stretch a point when the director is Ivo van Hove, whose version of A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic cleaned up at the Olivier awards a couple of years ago. His reinvention of Ibsen's masterpiece for the National Theatre relies on a modern version by Patrick Marber that is fluent and plausible, updating the setting by 150 years but staying faithful to the characters.
It moves slowly, perhaps a little too slowly before the interval, with long Pinteresque pauses and little variation in pace. The advantage for the audience in the Lyttelton is that every line is weighed several times as the meaning is teased out. 'We have each other' is a line that sounds like a death sentence for the doomed marriage of Hedda and Tesman. The slowness is deliberate, not a reflection of the fact that this show is still in its early previews.
The set by Jan Versweyveld is a huge ugly white box occupying the whole stage, with no doors or windows, just a glass screen on one side that lets in daylight. With a minimal selection of ill-sorted furniture and walls of drab plasterboard, it is a fitting symbol for the emptiness of the Tesman marriage, already on the rocks as the couple return from their long European honeymoon. Before the play opens, Hedda is seated with her back to the audience, playing an upright piano in the middle of the stage. A maid is seated stiffly on the left, rather like a prison warder supervising the inmates of a cell.
Some productions of this play evoke sympathy for Hedda by making Tesman a cold academic prig. This one does the opposite, with the excellent Kyle Soller playing the would-be professor as a regular human being who lies bare-footed on the sofa, albeit a man with an overriding ambition to succeed. Ruth Wilson's Hedda is striking in a white silk dress, and very very nasty. From the moment she seizes the post-honeymoon buckets of flowers and violently strews them around the room, it's clear she has more in common with Lady Macbeth or Medea than most stage heroines.
Sinead Matthews and Chukwudi Iwuji both make a strong impact as Mrs Elvsted and Lovborg, the disturbed recovering alcoholic writer for whom she has abandoned her husband. Iwuji, who was terrific when he played the hapless Henry VI in the RSC's big history cycle some eight years ago, is mostly to be seen in the US these days. He makes Lovborg's somewhat melodramatic antics after he is deliberately coaxed off the wagon by Hedda seem completely believable.
I was less convinced by Rafe Spall as Judge Brack, whose portrayal of the sinister blackmailing lawyer only really gets going in the final scene. But that may well reflect the director's artistic choices rather than those of the actor.
Some may find this production too reliant on the director's puppet mastery of his actors; but I was riveted. Van Hove, like Declan Donnellan, may lead his actors in suprising directions, but it seems to me he is always putting the text first. What would Ibsen think? That may be a silly question, but I think he would have enjoyed this remarkable production.