Thomas Ostermeier's sleekly updated production of Hedda Gabler – now visiting the Barbican from Berlin's Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz – exerts a horrible fascination for the two hours of its uninterrupted duration. Hedda and Tesman return from their honeymoon to a hypermodern house with sliding glass walls. It looks more like an airless display cabinet than a home, and feels as if we are being invited to scrutinise specimen creatures rather than identify with fellow human beings.
Ibsen's destructive heroine, who knows that her greatest talent is for boring herself to death, is portrayed by a compellingly creepy Katharina Schüttler. Her Hedda is a gamine, pallid beauty who registers frustration with a sullen, pouting languor and cat-like stillness rather than through fits of sarcastic protest. In the scene where she sends Lovborg (Kay Bartholomäus Schulze) to his suicide, Ostermeier has the character pretend to shoot himself in front of her as a grotesque joke. Her unflinching gaze as he raises the gun to his temples is truly disturbing.
Ostermeier scored an earlier hit with Nora, a contemporary version of A Doll's House in which you felt a desire to shock for shock's sake. This Hedda Gabler is more restrained, though the black wit of its approach can result in absurdities. Lovborg's precious manuscript is now a file in a laptop. Hedda smashes the machine, despite the fact that, in Ostermeier's rejigged account, her husband and Mrs Elvsted are asleep nearby.
The actors deliberately underplay so that we seem to be eavesdropping on a hermetically sealed drama. The effect, though, is to leave key encounters badly underpowered. The insinuating force of Judge Brack fails to make itself felt in Jorg Hartmann's low-key, colourless performance.
The powerful conclusion does not distract from the two main objections to Ostermeier's production – it never persuades us that a contemporary Hedda would be so little in control of her destiny or so dependent on men. The best performances of the role make us feel, with Ibsen, that there's a little of Hedda in all of us. With Schüttler, one is mesmerised by an alien being.
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