It is rare enough these days to see a fringe theatre presenting two or more works in repertory, rarer still that both should be major works by Ibsen. Moreover, in Alison Brown's production each actor plays directly corresponding roles to emphasise the similarities between A Doll's House (written in 1879) and Hedda Gabler (1890) – to the extent that, if one lays aside the modish interpretation of Nora Helmer in the earlier play as a proto-feminist heroine, Hedda emerges almost as a darker rewrite rather than an independent piece.
A Doll's House is often regarded as the less satisfying play; I have uncomfortable memories of an Abbey Theatre production in the early 1980s in which the audience insisted on treating it as a bourgeois comedy, and was not particularly straining the text to reach this bizarre conclusion. Yet it is by far the more powerful of the two in performance here; as a revival of Brown's acclaimed 1994 production for the Etcetera, this is perhaps understandable.
A year on, the part of Nora fits Julia Stubbs like a glove. She can hint at the idea of a woman of native intelligence cramped by social expectations (including her own) into the role of wife-as-accessory, but do so without selling Nora short as a rounded character, in particular as a woman who genuinely loves her husband. As Torvald Helmer, Richard Trahair is at times oppressively arid, only emerging in the final confrontation as a well-meaning victim of his own notions of propriety who must now question the established order of things as much as his wife. More impressive is the almost complete lack of villainy in Mark Gillis's performance as the blackmailer Krogstad; here, never comfortable with his stratagem, he seizes gladly on the chance of redemption offered by the return of his former beloved Kristine. Brown's production is subtle, rich in nuance and all in all a tiny revelation.
Unfortunately, and surprisingly, Hedda Gabler cannot match it. As Hedda, Stubbs is fine at conveying general currents of disquiet, but belabours individual moments with nervous hand and face movements and (for some reason) a succession of terrified glances at the door. Where Martin Hyder had made a nobly restrained Dr Rank in A Doll's House, here his Judge Brack oozes lubricious craving from the first. Brown's decision to set the play several decades after the period of its composition adds nothing to the production, except perhaps to complement Celia Wells's old-fashioned, stilted performance as Aunt Julia.
Despite the avowed intention of pointing up Hedda's similarities to A Doll's House, there is a nagging feeling that Brown believed an equally straight production would be just too similar, and so became more concerned to present a performance that was sufficiently different than to match the high standard she had set herself. At any rate, the newer half of the bill is a pale shadow of its stronger, more assured elder sister.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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