It is usual for theatre criticism to pay a great deal of attention to lighting design in the context of a theatre review. It could be argued that this if often because there is little space to do so, and with the performers conveying the story, this is where the writer and consequently reader will look to in order to decode the show’s meaning. It is also true that though lighting adds focus, colour, texture, depth and shape to a production, it rarely conveys meaning outright and is consequently sidelined to perhaps a line or two about ‘mood’ or ‘atmosphere’. Ivo van Hove’s most recent production of Hedda Gabler for the National Theatre is one of the exceptions. The lighting design is inseparable from the character of Hedda herself and a wealth of deeper meaning can be unpacked from it.
It would have been impossible for Ivo van Hove to bring Hedda Gabler into the 21st century with Patrick Marber’s new version without radical revision of the set, and radical that adaptation has been. Jan Versweyveld has designed and produced the set and lighting in conjunction, a method he is renowned for, so that their meanings are intrinsically tied. From Ibsen’s meticulously described early 20th century ‘country villa’ he has re-imagined three stark, white plaster walls, cement-grey flooring, a scuffed white couch; a clinical space devoid of colour and of character with no attempts at decoration beyond the flowers in empty buckets of the liberally applied fresh white paint. Hedda’s piano takes centre stage, the only “old” thing in the room, the standout piece. This is framed by her two pistols, presented in a glass cabinet set in the wall stage right and paired with a fire extinguisher in a matching cabinet stage left. The presentation of these items adds to the overwhelming sense that this is not a lived in, homely space but a functional one; a gallery, a hotel or a showroom. The imposing sense of threat is also visually articulated.
Light shines from a single window with a sliding pane, stage left, which stretches to fill three quarters of the wall space, a whole third of the set, and the full height of the cast members. Nothing can be seen beyond, but the blank canvas of the white set is illuminated with its light, the absence of colour on the high, blank walls allowing the changes in strength, colour, texture and shade to be made strikingly clear. In naturalistic fashion, the tone and quality of light that shines is in keeping with the time of day, but it is Hedda’s control and manipulation of this light that in turn gives light to her character. In her opening scene, Hedda scorns the warm, bright morning light streaming through the window, and insists on the blinds being closed. Immediately, a bluer, colder tone fills the space which sets the tone of the scene and also reflects Hedda’s state of mind. By this action, Hedda consigns herself to the coldness of the apartment, disregarding the outside world and any chance of its warmth penetrating the room. The other characters are held in this cold space with her, and can make no attempt to let the light in whilst in her presence, she shuts and keeps the warmth out of the space.
When Hedda is left alone onstage for the first time, the stage is flooded with startling blue light. The walls, the floor and her body are drowned in it, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ plays, and we are invited to consider Hedda alone. She gazes out over the audience, lit only by the colour blue. The colour of her mood. The colour of loneliness, sadness, coldness, bleakness and depression. It covers her as it consumes her. It reveals her; her vulnerability, her fragility, her overwhelming sadness. The blue Hedder is encountered a further two times in he course of the play, and each time the blue is contrasted with the warm yellow-orange tinted light outside. She plays with the blinds, flipping them backwards and forwards and watching the bright streaks of light flit fleetingly across the room. Like rays of sunlight they throw the blue into deep strips of shadow, like the bars of a cage, holding her prisoner. She strips the blinds back entirely, and fills the room with daylight, throwing the cut flowers from the paint pots feverishly across the room. She takes some in her hands and staples stems haphazardly onto the walls. She fights the ‘blue’ with sunlight, with activity, with attempting to bring the outside world into her environment. These are ways in which a sufferer of depression might attempt to fight their condition. But each time when she is left alone, the blue light and blue mood returns.
Light from the window is blocked entirely in the final scenes, large wooden boards obscure all natural light and a duller, flatter tone is cast over the stage. The space at once feels more claustrophobic, and Hedda’s matching mood of resolute misery is clear in her face, her physicality, her tone of voice. She no longer attempts to let the light in, she is has consigned herself to the sterile dark.
In the final moments of the play, an entirely new form of light is used. Light comes not from the window, but seemingly from behind the walls themselves, through gaps left under the white plaster walls. It is not a warm orange sunlight or a cold blue light, but a pure white light, almost blinding, harsh and unnatural. As with the lighting throughout the play, it is my understanding that this light represents Hedda’s state of mind, but there is no definitive meaning clear to me. It perhaps symbolises that Hedda has left the room at last, in spirit, and light is beaming in once more now the space is outside of her control. Or perhaps the light is itself Hedda’s spirit, shining through the walls, an exposing, interrogating light, exposing the characters in their shame and confusion at what has taken place. It has a supernatural, ghostly quality to it.
Light is essentially abstract, devoid of meaning without context, but what I have attempted to do here is to put into words the moods, atmospheres, meanings and interpretations that can be made when it is used alongside stage design and in the context of character. I believe this production of Hedda Gabler shows us that in a critical context lighting design is sometimes worth a deeper look.