Preview: Hilda, Hampstead Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

It's early days for the Scottish actress Stella Gonet, as she defines her character in the rehearsals for Hilda, a thriller about an upper-class French woman, Mrs Lemarchand, who becomes obsessed with Hilda, the servant she employs to look after her children. The relationship between Gonet's Mrs Lemarchand and the servant we never see is "a curious one," says Gonet. "Mrs Lemarchand believes that she is a caring left-wing, socialist employer, but in fact she controls and crushes with her kindness."

Mrs Lemarchand is barely interrupted throughout the play, says Gonet. "Often she carries on talking without listening to anything said to her. Wanting to improve Hilda's existence, she offers friendship, cultural excursions to the theatre, good money, treats, clothes. Yet Hilda does not want to take anything. She actually refuses to speak."

A baffled Mrs Lemarchand, whom Gonet likens to a vampire, cannot understand why the servant is "behaving like a slave, but the truth is that she needs Hilda to save her. She has neither happiness or love in her life and feels incapable of looking after her children."

Gonet is best known for the Nineties BBC costume drama The House of Eliott, about two sisters who start a tailoring business. She was also a main player with the RSC for years, but now she returns to the stage after a long break.

Hilda, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh (The Merry Wives of Windsor and Alice in Wonderland for the RSC), was the first play by Franco-Senegalese playwright and novelist Marie NDiaye. It was originally produced at Théâtre de L'Atelier, Paris in 2002. Ndiaye's other plays include Providence (2001); Rien d'humain (2003); Les Serpents (2004) and Papa Doit Manger (2003).

"The trick to playing these damaged characters - and yes, I have played a few," says Gonet, "is to try and find the redeeming quality and find a way of loving them."

6 April to 6 May (020-7722 9301; www.hampsteadtheatre.com)

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