Like a male Shakespearean lead, Hedda Gabler is one of those characters actors use to prove themselves. Nothing wrong with that, as it’s allowed us to see many great actors give stellar performances through the years. Does this, however, help us understand the character?

Criticised when first performed for not having a clear purpose, and for the utter hideousness of many of Hedda’s actions, this play sits, sometimes uncomfortably, between bitter comedy and existential tragedy; between apparent randomness and horror. Forming her with aspects of women he knew and some of his own experiences, Henrik Ibsen constructed a rather detestable monster. But we can also see below the surface, and even understand some of Hedda’s feelings.

Ivo van Hove, one of today’s most sought-after directors, rises to the challenge by stripping Ibsen’s play of period and staging it in an almost bare stage. The emptiness of the space accentuates the feeling that the house Hedda and her spouse Tesman bought have left them completely bankrupt, and serves as a compelling backdrop for disaster.

Sound and music (designed by Tom Gibbons), incessantly repeated like Hedda’s own absentminded piano notes, becomes a character in itself as a constant reminder of her mental state. Light and stage (designed by Jan Versweyveld), though simple, play with the passing of time, which also reflects the emotions being played out.

And what an array of emotions! Ruth Wilson is hypnotic, magnetic, venomous yet vulnerable. Her multi-layered Hedda allows for some empathy and a ton of pity; all while being vile and utterly spiteful. Her portrayal is a rollercoaster, where frustration and deep unhappiness are ever present. Hedda isn’t just unstable and evil: she’s so unhappy with her life that she resents and hates everyone else’s. After all she’s a trophy wife to her husband, with whom she has nothing in common, and a toy in the hands of Brack – the seductive lover. Only she is to blame for her choices, yet she’s always been constrained by social conventions and men. Whether delivering rude one-liners or manipulating those around her, bitterness and sadness are so present it’s disturbing.

Transcending the text, Wilson disarms, shocks, and ends her character crudely and unglamorously. There’s a palpable tension that crescendos in the second half, reaching its climax unceremoniously yet with gut-wrenching truth. Hedda, found out and threatened, makes a raw exit as everything she created – or rather, destroyed – falls back into place and life is finding its way. She has no purpose, she’s alone and, more importantly, she’s powerless. The modernity of the words and feelings is such that it still shocks and moves.

The rest of the cast is equally brilliant, even though at times Sinéad Matthew’s Mrs Elvsted tilted dangerously towards the melodramatic. They give intense performances, and there’s a palpable drive behind their actions. A welcome complexity that enriches the production. Particularly remarkable was Rafe Spall’s Brack, a toxic, threatening presence throughout.

Although not to the taste of some, this Hedda Gabler is not only compelling or moving, but also relevant. It’s not only the perfect vehicle for Wilson’s abilities, but also an emotional and disturbing ride through the darkest part of human nature. We can all understand some of Hedda’s feelings, and we can stop ourselves from feeling sorry for her when we realise we’ve all been there. Even if just for a second. We’re, after all, the choices we make.

Hedda Gabler is playing at the National Theatre until March 21. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.

Photo by Jan Versweyveld