Hedda Gabler is not a nice person. In fact, she must be one of the most repellent anti-heroines in world theatre.
Hedda is selfish, ill-tempered, lying, manipulative, destructive, cruel even from childhood, and downright demonic in her actions.
It only becomes easier to empathise with her in the latter part of the play. The fact that she too is a victim is made brutally apparent.
So how did Henrik Ibsen come to write this work in 1890?
He was a universally admired pioneer of realism and modernism in theatre, and a hammer of the bourgeoisie.
But by the time he wrote Hedda Gabler, he’d moved on from the examining social issues to a preoccupation with the psychology behind people’s actions.
Hedda is the daughter of an aristocratic general, who left her nothing but his duelling pistols.
Her tragedy is that she makes no effort to escape the straitjacket of provincial middle-class life.
Having drifted into marriage to a man she does not love, she descends into a self-destructive spiral.
By contrast Hedda’s friend Thea Elvested faces similar barriers to taking control of her life. But she treads a path not littered with victims of malice.
Respectable society must have detested this play. Despite abandoning direct advocacy of social change, Ibsen does not shrink from exposing the pressure to conform.
It takes on the hypocrisy, the sex beyond the marriage bed, the corruption, the centrality of money to people’s lives, the imperative to clamber up the greasy pole.
The production is in modern dress, there are cans of soft drink, the language of Patrick Marber’s translation is contemporary.
The impoverished circumstances of Hedda’s marriage is suggested by the stage being lined by sheets of unpainted plasterboard, with the joins showing.
It contains no more than a piano, a couch, a desk and chair and the duelling pistols in their case upon the wall. Meanwhile, the intermittently harsh, slanting lighting conjures alienation.
The entry and exit of characters via the auditorium emphasise the isolating nature of the apartment and the claustrophobia of the nuclear family.
The production makes effective use of the tinkling of a piano, the occasional use of Joni Mitchell’s album Blue.
All agree that Ruth Wilson plays Hedda well. Kyle Soller impresses as her young husband, as do Sinead Matthews as a courageous Thea Elvested and Chukwudi Iwuji as a passionate Lovborg.
So if your taste runs to melodrama given full rein by the director, hurry to the National Theatre.
However, theatregoers who consider themselves socialists might prefer to approach Ibsen’s work through plays such as A Doll’s House or An Enemy of the People.