Hedda Gabler, Almeida, London <br></br> The House of Bernarda Alba, NT Lyttelton, London <br></br> Lear, Crucible, Sheffield

It's all Norwegian to me
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It was a week of "new versions": classic plays being adapted or translated afresh by contemporary big names. Firstly, Richard Eyre has drafted his own script for his keenly awaited production of Hedda Gabler - Ibsen's drawing-room tragedy about a supposedly respectable, dangerously frustrated, fin-de-siècle wife. Eyre explains in his programme note that he has worked closely with a literal translation and has tried to capture the cadences which he could, at least, infer from the original language.

Not having studied the play in Norwegian, I cannot pass comment on the cadences. However, in Act One, the dialogue was not all that convincingly tripping off the tongues of Benedict Cumberbatch and Gillian Raine, playing Hedda's academic husband and his aged aunt. It may have been press-night nerves, but their little chat about his worryingly expensive new wife made one wonder if the whole marital drama had been misconstrued as Hedda Gabbling. Their exchanges - in fairly plain, unaffected but not excessively modern English - read rather better on the page.

Rob Howell's set is also slightly puzzling at first, with unclear projections of wooden panelling - or was it striped wallpaper? - on a gauzy scrim, through which a further room with jagged brick walls is visible. That said, this design creates an atmosphere of ghostly melancholy, combined with morbidly dark Victorian furniture and pools of watery sunlight. The two chambers also intimate that this is a society of nice facades concealing rough and raw secrets.

Thankfully, the production becomes gripping too. Eve Best is an outstanding, subtly intense actress. Her tall, raven-haired Hedda is a web of conflicting impulses: disdainfully cool and seething underneath, shockingly sadistic, desperately unhappy and ultimately sickened by her near-satanic destructiveness. She's like a caged animal, too, breaking out in screaming rages. Iain Glen is frighteningly predatory, portraying her decadent admirer, Judge Brack. Prowling around with a ginger moustache and beard, reaching out to stroke her neck, he's like a killer-fox in top hat and tails. Eyre also boldly breaks with Ibsen's rather decorous conclusion. The final gunshot is no longer offstage but visible, splattering blood over that delicate gauze. Hedda Gabler still has the power to shock.

Next, David Hare's "new English version" of The House of Bernarda Alba is not as radically reworked as that description might suggest. Director Howard Davies recreates Lorca's period location, 1930's rural Spain, with the accuracy of a film set (albeit not sticking to the letter of the stage directions). We find ourselves in an inner atrium of the house where Penelope Wilton's Bernarda rules over her unmarried daughters with an obsessive strictness which, ultimately, leads to the death of her wildest child. Hot sunlight streams through high windows into this large stone courtyard with cloister-like arches. Hare, in turn, sticks fairly closely to the script, though the dialogue is notably more colloquial than many previous translations (with a few anachronistic phrases).

At the same time, this revival is very surprising. Lorca is generally seen as heavily symbolic and poetic, and most productions of this play are ferociously claustrophobic and gloomy. Hare and Davies' cast suggest this drama of backwater yearning and family tensions is more like Chekhov, really bringing out the comedy with fine, naturalistic acting. Hare's version is, in fact, subtitled "A Photographic Documentary". That is going a bit far and the atmosphere is, really, too airy. But the tension still builds, and the howling grief at the end is all the more tragic because no one's spirit has seemed incurably crushed until then. A few of Davies' cast are awkward - particularly those in cameo roles - but the sisterly sniping and teasing is often beautifully orchestrated, with Justine Mitchell's sardonic Magdalena and Sandy McDade's defensively dowdy Angustias deserving special mention. Deborah Findlay is superb as Bernarda's spiteful yet caring housekeeper and Wilton is richly complex: viciously repressive, occasionally nervous, and with this hidden well of sensuality which you suddenly glimpse as she strides over to the wireless, flicks on some dance music and smiles. It's worth seeing the show for that moment alone.

Finally, Edward Bond's Lear is, of course, not a brand new version of Shakespeare's tragedy. It first played to shocked audiences at the Royal Court in 1971 and was revived by the RSC in 1982. But this writer subsequently fell out so resoundingly with the British Theatre establishment that it really is startling and fascinating to see Jonathan Kent's major revival of this brutal epic. Bond's take on Lear's story departs widely from the Bard's. The core remains: a patriarchal dictator reduced to a mad beggar. But here Lear is seen building a massive divisive wall across his land and Cordelia is a peasant girl who becomes a guerrilla leader after being raped by soldiers and seeing her husband slaughtered for sheltering the outcast Lear. His ghost then haunts the old man who is finally gunned down, taking a shovel to the wall's foundations.

The writing has not aged well in all respects. There are some crude strokes. Sharon Small seems little more than a two-dimensional caricature as Lear's rich-bitch daughter, Fontanelle. The final act also drags. However, more often, the violence and injustice are powerfully depressing. Xenophobic barricades and imprisonment without trial are still woefully topical. The ambitious scale of Bond's vision is thrilling and Lear's crazed ramblings are scattered with poetic images, philosophic wisdom and surges of hope. Kent's production has a potent simplicity, performed on a vast scree of mud, and Ian McDiarmid is a riveting Lear, both as a ferocious, ratty little tyrant and as a poignantly muttering old tramp. This is a triumphant reunion for him and Kent, their first since they left the Almeida, and I hope they tackle Shakespeare's version together soon.

'Hedda Gabler': Almeida, London N1 (020 7359 4404), to 30 April; 'The House of Bernarda Alba': NT Lyttelton, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), booking to 18 June; 'Lear': Crucible, Sheffield (0114 249 6000), to 2 April