“Drink this medicine” my mother would say. “Never mind the taste -it’ll do you good”. I drank, gagged and remained sickly. “Go for a walk – you’ll feel better for the fresh air” advised a friend. I walked, slipped in the mud and twisted my ankle. A girl friend gushed: “Listen to this piece of Stockhausen! You’ll love it!” I listened, developed a migraine and she left me.
Sometimes you have to take “I know best” advice with a large dose of those white Siberian grains – at least, that’s what you learn to do over the years. “Follow your heart” doesn’t seem too bad a dictum now that I’m 70 – I’ve done a lot of head-following and too often come a cropper Doing the Right Thing, or Taking the Correct Course of Action, or Following the Recommendations for a Good Read. And yet, even now, I still find this latter habit dies hard. Thus when meeting an old friend by chance a few weeks back I took on board her excited recommendation of the National’s Hedda Gabler and when I found it was to be screened live duly made my booking.
I need to make clear that my decision to see the play came only in part from our meeting. Hedda is one of those works which, like Beethoven’s Fifth, Picasso’s Guernika and Milton’s Paradise Lost, are just “there” when you think of their sphere of the arts.
Any backdrop to a presentation about the theatre of the world would automatically include Hedda, along with Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Le Misanthrope and A View from the Bridge. It’s presented from the very first time you learn the name as a Great, a Meisterwerk, a Must-See. “Watch this, you’ll enjoy it”, and so I decided to do just that.
Looked at objectively now it was a daft exercise in personal box-ticking – had it not been on the screen I would NOT have gone to the expense and palaver of a trip from Yorkshire to the Smoke as I have done willingly for Gypsy and Endgame, for Sweeney and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for The Globe and The Playhouse, for Wilton’s and Roy Hudd. I wasn’t desperate to see it, but I paid my “mere” £18 so that I could say (to myself) that I’d seen it, I suppose. It was like Everest to climbers – it was there and accessible, so I went to “do” it.
Hedda Gabler was grim. Hedda was grim. I lasted the first half.
Ironically the only previous Ibsen that I’d seen was with this same friend, and I should have learned from Brand that, other than giving me that severe headache of the first paragraph, a) Ibsen isn’t too hot on action; b) that he takes forever to say what another writer would in half the time; and c) that his characters, above all his leads, are the most miserable, self-pitying, egocentric exemplars of humanity imaginable.
Nor is there any progression from one state of mind to another. Hedda is an egoistic, unpleasant bitch from her opening words to the half-time ice-creams, and probably (do I care?) to whatever she says finally before blowing her brains out (offstage). She neither morphs from loving soul to tortured wretch, nor from positive to negative, nor from warmth to indifference. She becomes simply more bored. And more boring.
There’s dramatic interest in watching the accelerating moral decline of Macbeth, or in the relentless paring away of Willy Loman’s self-delusion, or in the increasingly tortuous self-righteous isolation of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. But Hedda just gets more and more up herself. So does Brand. It’s like watching red get…well,…. more red. I’m not asking that Ibsen provide us with snappy one-liners, or some verbal equivalent of Duelling Banjos, just that he offer us changing characters rather than the same but louder.
Nor am I suggesting that a Good Play need be full of events and doings and entrances à la Shakespeare.
Godot holds us spellbound making us think and think again as we laugh or look on in amazement or pity. But other than the two brief interludes with Lucky and Pozzo there’s just a bleak view of life presented by the two tramps in the cleverest and funniest of pared-down language. No action. The Caretaker’s three characters fascinate with their isolation and their constantly changing relationships in the claustrophobic room. Yet nothing really happens. But there are an awful number of awful plays I wouldn’t be carried screaming to watch – anything by Corneille or Racine for starters – and absolutely zilch happens onstage there either.
I accept that Ruth Wilson acted Hedda (1st half) very well. But I couldn’t take any more of her character’s relentless going on about herself; I couldn’t stand either the occasional clunkiness of the translation from Swedish or the way the other characters so often sounded as though they were reading a translation; I didn’t like any of the characters; I couldn’t accept any of the plot’s premises. I couldn’t take the thought of another 80 minutes of fighting off sleep. I went home. “A sadder and a wiser man I rose the morrow morn”.
Theatre critics (chorus):“Go and see Hedda Gabler – it’s a classic, superbly produced and you’ll enjoy yourself.”
Sadder and wiser man: “Naff orf.”