Hedda Gabler: Reviving the Masterpiece with a Modern Touch

By Zoey Zha, February 9, 2018

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While the rapturous response to Oprah’s Golden Globes speech and the social media movement #MeToo continue to grow toward becoming international phenomena, there is no better time for NTLive to screen the play Hedda Gabler for Shanghai audiences.

As one of the most acclaimed and oft-revived works of Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler is a cry for feminist awareness. Critics went berserk when the play was first unveiled in the 19th century, pinning down Hedda Gabler as an evil female character that is not under control by a man and therefore a danger to social conventions.


Saying goodbye to corsets and lavish gowns, the latest adaption was revived by the British Royal National Theatre last year with a modern touch. Talented director Ivo van Hove decided to revamp the class story, transposing it into a modernized flat that takes up the entire stage. It’s interesting to observe how topics that have been discussed for 200 years remain a relevant concern in current times.

In the starring role of Hedda Gabler is Ruth Wilson, a three-time Oliver Awards nominee who became widely recognized for her excellent performance in the BBC TV adaption of Jane Eyre in 2006. She’s also known for playing sociopathic genius Alice Morgan on British crime drama Luther with Idris Elba. Wilson makes her mark on the iconic role of Hedda, aligning with van Hove’s idea of showing Hedda’s emotions explicitly instead of keeping them obscure like in many previous adaptions.


The first act opens with a conversation between Mr Tesman, an academic professor and Hedda’s husband, and his aunt. Between them lies Hedda, who rests quietly on the piano, making her first appearance in a long black coat with her back to the audience. She doesn’t look like she wants to be disturbed, and is not engaging with what’s going on around her.

This sense of isolation clouds Hedda in whatever she does. She’s unhappy about her life, having settled for marriage because it was time do so, despite her discontent with her husband’s fervid career pursuits. She stays in a loveless relationship, constraining herself to follow so-called social norms.

In the couple’s flat, a piano stands in the center of the room and a sofa lies off to the side, surrounded by three standing white walls. It’s upsetting to learn that this sparsely furnished, hollow space is a nest for the newlywed couple, a telltale sign that everything is on the brink of ruin.

The story unfolds layer upon layer. Over time, her troubled mind and soul destroys everything she cares about, including an ex-lover, which leads her to deliver the iconic line, “everything I touch is cursed.” In the end, when she’s convinced the viewer that she is ready to yield to her husband and her disappointing life, something horrible happens instead.


The play is delivered with nuance and excellent aesthetics. For instance, there is a memorable scene in which Hedda walks up to the window and starts fiddling with the blinds. Wilson elegantly conveys the loneliness of her character in this simple action. Her shadow projected on the wall creates flickering imagery, implying that the flat means nothing but prison to the heroine.

Expect an unleashing of emotion in this fresh interpretation of Ibsen’s work when screened at Shanghai’s Huangpu Theater this month. The screenings are just one of several offerings by NTLive throughout the month of February; others include Jane Eyre by Bristol Old Vic Theatre and Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw.

Feb 11, 2.30pm and Feb 25, 7pm, RMB100-200. Huangpu Theater, see event listing, buy tickets.

Photos by Jan Versweyveld.

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