Theater: The sex that never was

Hedda Gabler Theatre Royal, Plymouth The Master Builder Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

One of the key events in the history of Western drama occurred when Henrik Ibsen, the 61-year-old playwright, went on holiday and met an 18-year old-girl called Emilie. According to her, Ibsen spoke of divorcing his wife and travelling with her. Yet nothing happened. The playwright and the girl didn't even kiss.

The plays that followed this tremendous infatuation - Hedda Gabler in 1890 and The Master Builder in 1892 - are two of the most powerful dramatic accounts of the tension between passion and restraint. Last week it was possible to catch them on consecutive nights - in Plymouth and Guildford - and witness the impact of the kiss that never was.

In Plymouth, Francesca Annis plays Hedda, the young wife just back from her honeymoon and reckless with boredom. As anyone who has followed her career will know, Annis looks terrific. But without wishing to be ungallant, there's no way she could be 29. This isn't a question of looks, but spirit. There's a maturity in her manner that leaves you thinking that Tesman, her new husband, is unlikely to be her first.

The controlled nuances of her husky voice, her poised sexuality, the careful spinning-out of individual words - even the way her cheekbones instinctively seek out the best light - keep putting us in mind of an older woman. We feel that her Hedda would have had more than one chance to escape this deadening provincialism.

Annie Castledine's production contains some highly individual performances that could have come from different plays. Robert Bathurst plays Tesman, the scholar and new husband, with the boyish quickness and comic speech patterns of an Ayckbourn character. Move the play forward 100 years and he would come on wearing an anorak. Peter Bowles is a smooth and meticulous Judge Brack, whose friendship with Annis's Hedda turns into a series of teasing mind games. It's a psycho-sexual power struggle between the two of them. Bowles takes it about as far as it will go. When he leaves the house by the back door, he turns the line about having "nothing against back ways" into a little nudge about his sexual preferences.

Castledine's production is strong on the sex that's not being had. As Tesman's aunt, Nyree Dawn Porter's pronounced physical affection for her nephew highlights Hedda's distance from her husband. Brendan O'Hea's Lovborg, the role Strindberg thought was modelled on him, has a luxuriant black beard and strikingly intense manner to match. Frank McGuinness's translation stresses the sense of entrapment by class. The final line, echoing an earlier one, says that people don't do "that class of thing".

Annis's full-blooded performance takes Hedda from the hauteur of the general's daughter to a crumpled, wide-eyed and quavery wreck. As she approaches the fireplace with Lovborg's manuscript, she shrinks into an ugly glower. I wished I had had the remote control next to my seat. Volume, contrast and brightness were all fine. But this brooding melodramatic atmosphere seemed so 1940s, that it would have been good to have pressed a button and watched it in black and white.

The tour of Hedda Gabler was in its first week; the tour of The Master Builder in its last. Stephen Unwin's involving production for the English Touring Theatre achieves a greater directorial unity. Timothy West plays the central role of Solness the master builder with gruff precision, catching the disappointment and guilt that burdens him. But this crisp phlegmatism doesn't fully conjure up the sexual trauma of a mind overwhelmed by a young woman. As Hilde, who bursts into Solness's life, Emma Cunniffe is headstrong and natural, but her exchanges with West don't always convince us she's listening very hard. There are good supporting performances from Caroline John as Solness's wife and Paul Slack as Ragnar the young architect.

But the scary sense of a tremendous opposition of forces (sex & society, youth and age, duty and impulse) isn't really there. And that's where Ibsen remains so modern. In both these plays, Ibsen drew on the turbulence of that summer holiday. With them he presented his own tragic vision of that north European mess: No Sex, Please, We're Norwegian.

`Hedda Gabler': Richmond Theatre (0181 940 0088) 29 Nov-4 Dec, touring to Brighton

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