Theatre legend Ken Campbell noted that most theatre is largely about people walking in and out of rooms. That notion is taken to its ultimate conclusion in farce, where no door is opened without the discovery that those behind it are experiencing an intimate moment. In farce, the driving motive is humour. In Hedda Gabler the intent is darker - the structure of farce is autopsied to provide insights into the games people play, and in particular those played by the script's protagonist.
Initially, the stylised nature of Patrick Marber's take on Ibsen's script is jarring, but that stylisation is precisely what brings the character dynamics into stark relief. Hedda is uncomfortable in her skin, mostly due to the fascination that others have with her body - she is an object of desire, a means for babies to come into the world, a trophy for the taking. As played by Lizzy Watts, Hedda is awkward, baffled by the emotions of those around her. Hedda's own inner life is exposed by occasional musical interludes during which her body softens, Joni Mitchell's words expressing more if Hedda's soul than she ever could herself.
Hurt people hurt people. That's at the core of the story, and whatever hurt has been visited on Hedda she reaps on others before being engulfed in the consequences of her actions. She convinces herself she's motivated to bring beauty into the world, an assumption she can only make by putting her faith in art rather than empathising with people. She's too damaged to do so, and the play is devastating in its exploration of that thesis.
The action unfolds in a sizeable apartment, its scale a pointer both to the wealth and status of the characters and a way to physicalise their emotional distance. Effective lighting to underscore tonal shifts and subtle music and sound design serve to draw out the play's themes.
Hedda Gabler is a farce like Michael Haneke is a director of thrillers. Both use the structure of something familiar to get at what they're really interested in, which in the case of Hedda Gabler is insights into gender, sexuality, and power.
Hedda Gabler is at Theatre Royal from Monday February 5 to Saturday February 10, 2018.