Hedda Gabler, Almeida Theatre, London

Superb cast and custom-built translation bring new life to an explosive Ibsen drama
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The Independent Culture

Custom is inclined to blunt the impact ofHedda Gabler, a play that is never long off the English stage. But Richard Eyre's thrilling production re-administers, as if for the first time, the devastating shock and the sheer affront of Ibsen's play.

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 dramatist would have emphasised those features of her past (lack of a mother; dubious military father etc.) 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 dramatises 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 so achingly alive with deadliness and so unsentimentally poignant in the way she shows you the underlying vulnerability of the 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. That's to say: to what extent do you want to do the impossible and intervene 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, Eve Best's Hedda has the miraculous capacity to do the unspeakable and to be absolutely 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.

The production is superlatively cast. Iain Glen is 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. And Gillian Raine beautifully presents the resented Aunt Ju-Ju as she must feel to herself.

Richard Eyre is doubly to be congratulated, for he has directed the play using his own custom-built translation which is alive to every blackly comic twist and turn and suggestive detonation in a play with a stifling, bourgeois atmosphere where a sly, verbal nudge can have the effect of a slap in the face and where, say, the way people name and refer to one another can be the continuation of emotional blackmail by other means. A truly red letter night.