Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Opened 1 August, 1996

Alexandra Gilbreath's performance in the title role of Ibsen's play has been fêted long before the production's arrival in London. Hers is a very different Hedda from the norm. We are used to seeing the character portrayed as a woman probably indulged in her younger days by her late father, the General (whose portrait hangs here in the upstage closet of Pamela Howard's striking design), now stifled by her marriage to an arid, scholarly wimp and keeping her natural passions in check with difficulty.

Gilbreath's Hedda is all cool patrician reserve, ramrod-backed and speaking with a palpably controlled affectation of languor. One gets the feeling that her fondness for playing with the General's pistols derives not from tomboyish licence in her childhood, but because she grew up in a milieu where handling guns was a natural recreational activity. When she first encourages former lover Ejlert Løvborg to return to his old rakehell ways and later exhorts him to take the grandly romantic way out of his despair, this Hedda seems not to be motivated by either heartfelt desires or reckless capriciousness, but rather someone who simply cannot conceive of not getting her own way with others.

In Stephen Unwin's English Touring Theatre production, Hedda's husband also has more to him than usual. Crispin Letts invests Jørgen Tesman with more backbone than the normal characterisation as a clownish swot. His dedication to his aunts (Ann Firbank giving a fine, perfectly neutral performance as Aunt Julia) is a matter of familial duty rather than apron-string devotion, and if he is unable to see what is before his eyes Hedda's pregnancy, hidden behind stately gowns which give her the air of a Renaissance Doge it is not because he is an ivory-towered naïf.

All of which said, Unwin's production does not quite spark. Gilbreath's characterisation, although brilliant, leaves faint credibility gaps when she begins to envisage vine leaves in Løvborg's hair and when events overtake her in the final act: the outbreaks of shocked realisation clash with her customary composure rather than integrating into a continuous degeneration. Jonathan Phillips is a little self-conscious to be as dashing as Løvborg is required to be, and David Killick as Judge Brack, while skilfully matching Hedda's urbanity throughout, underplays the final movement in which she finds herself entrapped in his silken web. Nevertheless, in the trade-off between clarity of behaviour and potency of emotion, this version (in a translation by the increasingly ubiquitous Kenneth McLeish) comes out well ahead of the pack.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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