Sixteen shows in, Berlin theatre still manages to surprise me with new stylistic choices, visual arsenals, and performance aesthetics. Stefan Pucher’s Hedda Gabler at the Deutsches Theater was the first production that used the revolve to switch between sets – every other time I’ve seen that feature used, it was obviously the stage floor itself that was rotating, making the actors move on, along with, or against it. Here, it works in a more conventional way: to move the scene from one room to another. And the set it moves is also different from any other I have seen in Berlin: it’s detailed, highly specific, full of unused props, and in at least two of its four rooms, almost photorealistic. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see this set at the National Theatre in London.

The iron curtain opens on the most stylized of the rooms: an exaggerated version of a Scandinavian 19th-century interior, with a log-wood wall rather than more refined wainscoting, a grandfather clock that’s not quite tall enough, a rocking chair that’s a little too big, and very little playing space. The shallow set and its symbolism of constraint would be too heavy-handed by half if it weren’t for the acting: Margit Bendokat’s Aunt Juliane projects her overenunciated words like a foghorn, every “Joergen” like a slo-mo below; Felix Goeser’s Tesman stands glued to the mantelpiece in a deliberately awkward and mechanical pose. He’s released by Hedda’s entrance, to the tinkling sound of a musical box, and Hedda herself, played by Nina Hoss, also falls outside the extremely stylized characterization that’s defined the scene so far. Hoss plays her as a cold, distant figure, slightly dazed, volatile but contained – there is discontent, even rage, under the surface, and it shows in flashes of anger, but mostly finds expression in an all-encompassing disdain. This approach isolates her somewhat from the other actors and their styles throughout the evening; here, it mostly registers as the incursion of a distinct kind of figure into the scene – a deliberate mismatch.

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The scene changes soon thereafter, and as the revolve turns, we are moved into the 1920s – a meticulously designed Art Deco room in which Hedda, still in her steampunky Elizabethan/Victorian mashup gown, is again not at home. It takes her forever to settle down in the modernist chaise longue, with much shuffling and tugging at the dress. Tesman, on the other hand, has already changed from his Victorian house coat into a fairly hideous Art Deco bathrobe; his beard, too, has shrunk. Judge Brack joins the party, a sleazeball from the get go; Bernd Moss is playing him rigorously to type. Stylistically, characters now begin to move, to enter and exit, as if they were in some sort of screwball comedy or a parlour farce. The constraints are different from those in the first scene, but they’re still constraints, and Hedda’s no better suited to this setup than to the first one. When the scene shifts again, we are confronted with a wonderfully awful 70s fantasy, half living room, half outdated Sci Fi, with a huge wall of plastic tiles and silver light bulbs as the backdrop. I lost track of Hedda’s costume changes, but sooner or later, she enters in an outfit and hairdo matching her surroundings – she’s now all long blond Brigitte Bardot hair and endless, flowing, slit white trousers. But is she really at home in this set? One moment she’s writhing languidly on one of the hilarious armchairs, the next she’s almost sliding off, defeated by ennui. This seems more like Brack’s setting than hers, and his sleaziness really comes into its own here as he expands on his fantasy of the perfect triangle and jokes about people watching Hedda’s legs. And again, the overall style of the scene shifts to something from a period film, perhaps with a touch of Edward Albee. (If Hedda doesn’t ever quite fit in, it’s not clear that the alternative is especially desirable either: Tesman could not be more domesticated, dressed in nothing but dressing gowns — increasingly, an embodied image of the stultifying domesticity Hedda longs to escape.)

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Pucher remains true to himself throughout, though: whenever it looks like subtext is about to emerge, it’s either turned into text and unambiguous action (at one point, Brack deep-throats Hedda’s index finger) or glazed over with outward neutrality. Tesman bumbles in and out of these scenes, mostly in period-appropriate costume, always sporting a different style of facial hair, but he’s always himself: unremarkable, impervious, so thoroughly average that it’s difficult to care if he has an inner life or not. If Lovborg’s entrance into this game of surfaces might, in a different production, have heralded a change, some sort of fracturing of the surfaces, nothing of the sort happens in Pucher’s Hedda Gabler: Lovborg’s entrance is as artful as Hedda’s in Act 1, except that he appears, period-specifically, like a sex-god from outer space, beamed in to the sound of theremins, and poses for a while in a metal circle at the centre of the 70s-nightmare room. Lovborg is never much more than a fantasy, and like Hedda, he doesn’t quite fit in anywhere (his costume never changes). He’s also like her in that no-one ever quite seems to hear what he says: the brutal line about not wanting to beat Tesman to a professorship, but wanting to be seen as intellectually superior by the public barely registers.

The set rotates again, but this time the move seems to take us – and them – out of time altogether, into a room twice as large as any of the previous ones and deeper than the others too, essentially bare but for a piano, a drum kit, and other musical equipment: it’s either a band rehearsal room or a contemporary Berlin stage. Is this a move from highly stylized historical settings to an overtly theatrical one? From historical time to the now (which necessarily has to be theatrical)? From pretend realities to bare unadorned reality? Here, the back wall starts to function as a projection screen, and in the clips we see there, also heavily troped (Hedda as silent film goddess; Hedda and Lovborg in what looks like a Godard film; Hedda and all the men as gunslingers duelling on the street of a Western frontier town), characters seem to engage directly, seem to cut through the surfaces so impenetrable elsewhere – but it’s only ever a temporary effect. The dialogue between Hedda and Lovborg switches to the screen and back, from pretence to honesty and back again, but the very idea that the screen should be the locus of authenticity in this production and the stage the site of the fake, the superficial, the inaccessible must surely be deliberately ironic: it’s asking us to read pure surface, a two-dimensional, heavily mediated image, as more “real” than the embodied people sharing the same space, time, and air as us. Music plays a similar role: at various points, characters grab a microphone (there’s a Berlin stage stereotype!) and break into seemingly significant song, but this, too, struck me as fairly obviously ironic: it’s a move that toys with the idea that there might be greater access to truth through pop, but never allows that hope to function as anything more than escapism — and not much of an escape either: the Beatles’ “For No One” may express something about Hedda (and perhaps about Mrs Elvsted, too), but it hardly paints a happier picture of life than the play itself. And once the song is over, the scene continues unchanged in any case. The entire cast may be able to band together, harmoniously, to perform a piece of music (with Tesman, amusingly, on the drums, the last person who should be setting the beat), but that harmony, as the rest of the play bears out, doesn’t mean anything.

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It’s a relentlessly cerebral production, this – no punch is ever thrown with full force, none ever land (Hedda’s betrayal of Mrs Elvsted comes closest – she does seem to feel the cruelty, but she doesn’t really understand it either). Hedda’s two major transgressions, the betrayal of Mrs Elvsted and her burning of Lovstrom’s manuscript, give her obvious temporary pleasure, but don’t tear her out of her unending ennui, and do nothing to bring her permanently into sync with her surroundings. As we discover, there is a Hedda dressed and coifed appropriately for the Art Deco set, and she gets to inhabit that space when Tesman hands her Lovborg’s lost text. However, just as the sense of being in control – of having the power over others she says she craves – is short-lived in the other sets, it doesn’t last here either. By play’s end, we are back in the original faux-19th-century set, with everyone but Hedda in period dress, and with Brack controlling her fate. Everyone but her is back to the mechanics of the opening scene; Tesman and Mrs Elvsted, revealed standing stiffly side by side inside a wardrobe that frames them like a ghoulish family portrait as they “work” on reconstructing Lovborg’s manuscript, are more closely aligned than Hedda ever will be with anyone. So she returns to the wide open set, stepping out of time, and shoots herself – a suicide that also barely registers among those inhabiting their time correctly (if not fully). Brack’s hideous last line, so often cut from performances now, feels entirely appropriate in this context: “One doesn’t do such things.”

The show doesn’t end there, though it should. The set rotates once more, back to the soundstage, and Aunt Juliane (or is it Margit Bendokat) gets to intone an epilogue about the train of life, stuck and running on the same tracks over and over again. I didn’t recognize the text, though the point it was making had been amply established by the entire production, and in clearer terms.

I’m not sure this was an especially satisfying Hedda Gabler — as one critic wrote, everyone seems to be playing with the hand brakes on. I think that’s an apt description, but an unfair criticism: it’s obviously Pucher’s basic stylistic principle. The entire production has a clinical cast, just as many of the figures within it are conducting their own experiments without a great deal of emotional investment. Hedda’s actions, which could so easily be portrayed, melodramatically, as evil, here feel more like those of a bored cat toying with a mouse: it’s not that she wants to destroy Thea or Lovborg, but what else is there to do? Revenge is a pose, a pastime, and ultimately, an impossibility. And if the character ever fools herself – and us – into thinking that she is actually in charge, the production quickly disabuses her – and us – of that notion, pulling Hedda out of place and time again as quickly as it allows her to settle in.

I don’t know if there’s a larger political point — about female empowerment, maybe? – here. I kind of hope not. What there is, once again, is a point about theatre, or about representation more generally. None of what I’ve described couldn’t have been attempted in a more naturalist, psychological-realist frame. But Pucher instead chose to implicate his form and his medium in the argument his production is making. Alienation, ennui, dislocation – all these sentiments and emotional states are given concrete shape and form on stage through the sets and costumes, and through an acting style that precisely eschews any effort to make these figures seem like real people. If social experiments structure the action of the play, the overall production also presents that play as an experiment of sorts, its characters specimens prepared for digestion, reduced to their various functions and attributes. One doesn’t have to like that approach, one may feel that it misses more than it finds in Ibsen, one may think that it guts the play of its emotional power and reduces Hedda’s perverse appeal (all things critics have said), but I think it would be difficult to deny that Pucher pursues his project with rigor and precision. It’s a cool and very calculated production, deliberately withdrawn, denying whatever desire we might have for emotional attachment. It turns the audience into observers in a theatrical laboratory. Whether that experiment works out, if it actually yields any especially interesting results, I’m not sure; but it’s admirably set up.

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