Lloyd Evans

Hedda Garbler

Plus: a propaganda play at the Dorfman that wants to find the British welfare system guilty of cheating its beneficiaries

Hedda Garbler
Text settings

Hedda Gabler

Lyttelton, in rep until 21 March


Dorfman, in rep until 10 January

Hedda Gabler is one of the most influential plays ever written. It not merely illuminated an injustice, the enslavement of women within marriage, it fomented the revolutionary achievements of feminism. It deserves to be done as Ibsen intended. This updated version from Ivo van Hove locates Hedda in one of those posh urban dream homes that resemble an art gallery. Stage left, buckets filled with flowers. Centre, an abandoned plinky-plonk piano. At the rear, a lamp the size of a traffic bollard. Scruffy off-white masterpieces deck the walls. Everything looks chic and scaled-up. Tesman is a penniless American academic married to tetchy Hedda who pads about barefoot, in her nightie, grousing. Effortful gestures abound. To express her frustration Hedda picks all of the flowers from their buckets, beats them up thoroughly, and nails the stems to the walls with a staple gun.

The harder she asserts her rage the harder it is to care about it. Oddities multiply. Why does yuppie Hedda not have a job, a car, a smartphone, a circle of friends? Is she unaware that displaying loaded pistols in an unlocked case is illegal? Why has Lovborg written his masterpiece by hand, in ink, and then decided to keep the unique copy in a flimsy envelope? He’s a genius but he hasn’t heard of ‘backing up’. Nonsense piles on nonsense. Hedda’s burning of Lovborg’s script is one of the most shocking moments in all drama but in a centrally heated flat there’s a snag: no fireplace. Cue a mopey maid who toddles on at the right moment and holds a taper to a grille concealed beneath a rug. Whoosh! Tongues of flame leap into the air. Which explains why Hedda and Tesman are skint. They’ve blown their savings on a flat whose floor features a gas-fuelled barbecue. Really, it’s scarcely worth discussing this production. It isn’t even the anagram of a classic. Just a daft old muddle.

Love by Alexander Zeldin wants to find Britain’s welfare system guilty of cheating its beneficiaries. A jobless dad and his pregnant wife move into self-catering accommodation with their two nippers while a new flat is prepared for them by the council. Facilities in the hostel are clean and up-to-date, and they share the communal areas with a pair of loveable cockneys and a couple of super-polite immigrants. No one has any concern about fuel or maintenance bills. The fridge contains semi-skimmed milk, which suggests calorie concerns. And rightly so. Five of the six adults here are overweight. Two are obese. The children expect a choice of breakfast (toast or cereal) and they complain when their preference is unavailable. ‘I’m hungry,’ pleads a little girl, although slices of bread sit untouched in the toaster. Dad and Mum are incapable of helping themselves. Dad must attend day-long appointments at the Job Centre but he spends his evenings and weekends doing very little when he might work to support his family. Mum treats her pregnancy like a permanent disability and passes endless days flicking through therapy books while her kids, in their spruce new uniforms, are taught and fed at a nearby school.

Then crisis strikes. A free meal provided by local philanthropists is found to include vegetables in cans. Oh my God. Tinned food. What an indignity! And here lies the crux of the problem. The welfare state was established to protect the needy from the consequences of their predicament. At some point during the 20th century that objective changed, and the system now seeks to protect all citizens, including the affluent, from the consequences of their vanity. Hence the spectacle of a cosy, well-fed family enjoying tax-funded hospitality who say they feel utterly betrayed. Why? Because they’ve lost face. Their middle-class chums know they’ve been humiliated, But the real tragedy is that these sulky, pampered parents are unable to improve their lot because they’ve been taught that everyone, bar themselves, is obliged to restore them to whatever plateau of prosperity they feel they deserve.

Zeldin, who also directs, gets great performances from his cast and he succeeds in making his slow-burn, naturalistic play feel like a documentary rather than a slice of theatre. But his mastery of the stage merely conceals the distortions underlying the piece. At the climax, someone has a fatal attack (possibly triggered by a gluten overdose) and this sudden death elicited a shocked response from the press-night crowd. Sobs were heard. Moments later the curtain fell and the enraged spectators leapt to their feet and cheered wildly. Excellent propaganda, therefore. However, the true beneficiaries of this campaigning play are not the ‘poor’ (because the UK has the richest poor people in the world) but the fat-cat poverty activists who earn vast salaries from kids’ charities and other extensions of the state. Officially, they exist to relieve hardship but their true aim is to slander the government and demoralise the less well-off.