Hedda Gabler, Almeida, London

A Hedda to stop hearts
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The Independent Culture

Custom is inclined to blunt the impact of Hedda Gabler, a play that is never long off the English stage. But Richard Eyre's thrilling production at the Almeida re-administers, as if for the first time, the devastating shock and the sheer affront of Ibsen's drama. The heroine is an extraordinary creation - a volatile general's daughter trapped in a marriage to a docile, boring scholar, and toxic with frustration.

Any other playwright would have emphasised those features of her past (the lack of a mother; the dubious military father) that have turned her into the self-accursed figure she now is. But, in a manner that is either feminist or anti-feminist (according to taste) Ibsen explores not the causes but the effects of her destructive ennui - both on those around her and on herself.

In Eve Best, Eyre has found the most brilliantly complete Hedda Gabler since Fiona Shaw played the role in Deborah Warner's 1990 production. Best is sensationally good. Her Hedda is achingly alive in her deadliness, and unsentimentally poignant in the way she shows you the underlying vulnerability of this manipulative, socially-conditioned bully.

There's a tricky balance to be found in any production, and it very much depends upon the chemistry between the lead performer and the audience. To what extent do you want to do the impossible and intervene to try to save Hedda from herself, and to what extent do you want to rescue her husband, Tesman, from their ghastly, unworkable marriage?

Swarming with so much contradictory inner life (intrepid/pusillanimous; frigid/on heat etc), Eve Best's Hedda has the miraculous capacity to do the unspeakable and to be heart-stopping at one and the same time.

And the fantastic thing is that the performance is not "set'', so to speak; it risks, as it has to, misinterpretation.

Talking to a very intelligent friend in the interval, I realised that it was my desire to hijack this Hedda and whisk her to some place where she could be re-birthed. By contrast, he, given the chance, would have airlifted Tesman to some Hedda-free zone.

The production is superlatively cast. Iain Glen is all suavely lethal insinuation in a frock-coat as Judge Brack. Lisa Dillon, in a part that can easily become Madge to Hedda's Dame Edna, projects a wonderful, dogged, fierce integrity (so goading to the heroine) as her antithesis, Thea. Gillian Raine beautifully presents the resented Aunt Ju-Ju.

Richard Eyre is doubly to be congratulated, for he has directed the play using his own custom-built translation, which is alert to every blackly comic twist and turn and detonating insinuation in a drama that has a stifling, bourgeois atmosphere. Here a sly verbal nudge can have the effect of a slap in the face and, for example, the way people name and refer to one another can be the continuation of emotional blackmail by other means.

The scene is which Hedda burns Lovborg's manuscript (the "child'' that he and Thea have created) is astutely prepared for in this production by a moment in the first act when the heroine casually incinerates that morning's post.

There's nothing casual about the later holocaust, though. Best makes you realise that it's herself whom Hedda is principally destroying by this wanton act. You can almost feel the woman spoiling for suicide. A truly red-letter night.

To 30 April (020-7359 4404)