Hedda Gabler, Playhouse, Oxford

Wicked lady is just irresistible
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The Independent Culture

Hedda Gabler retains its power to shock, even when indifferently performed. But when it's communicated in a production as powerful as that now directed by Adrian Noble, you stagger out of the theatre feeling singed to the soul. Noble is, in some ways, a strange phenomenon. He's the ex-artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and yet, as was demonstrated several times while he was with that outfit, his strongest suit is not in the Jacobean theatre but in Chekhov and Ibsen. With the real-life Cusack sisters playing the fictional siblings, he directed one of most fully imagined productions of Three Sisters that I have seen. And that same feeling that every moment has been pondered anew is generated by this electric and dazzlingly dangerous version of Ibsen's great play.

As Hedda, Rosamund Pike gives a magnificent performance, radiating the kind of terminal discontent that, in some people, can be horribly magnetic as it shifts between bouts of irritable pseudo-energy and the dread stillness of someone spoiling for a fight. Pike is, of course, an extraordinarily beautiful woman – not for nothing was she cast as the lead in Terry Johnson's play Hitchcock Blonde. But beauty, not least in the luxuriant hair department, is a potential liability with this part. Hedda is supposed to have thin hair; it's why she harbours the schoolgirl bully's desire to take a match to Mrs Elvsted's superior coiffure. Pike, however, manages to distract you from the disadvantage (so to speak) of her loveliness by the mesmeric way she allows lazy languor to convey the always latent destructiveness of this woman.

Trapped in a marriage that she rancorously regrets among provincials whom she wrongly regards as her inferiors, Hedda could still have been written as principally a victim-figure. But Ibsen's play is doubly feminist in that it refuses to make excuses for her. Her problem is that she crucially lacks courage. She's like someone who has the "artistic personality" without the guts it takes to create art. Pike does not coarsen into vampiric melodrama Hedda's creepy confining of herself to vicarious experience. The excellence of the production can perhaps be summed up by the thought-provoking way it treats the difficult moment when Hedda feeds Lovborg's manuscript to the flames. It can seem a bit B-movie, but while not underplaying the flickering horror of the sequence (as updated versions have in converting the manuscript to an antiseptic laptop or memory stick), the incident is complicated here because as she turns the pages Hedda starts to read them, sidetracked into unscheduled absorption in his intellectual world. It makes you wonder, for once, whether this opus is actually good.

The cast are uniformly strong. It makes a different kind of sense of the play to make her husband, Tesman, grizzled and middle-aged. Robert Glenister's fine performance brings out all the consequently excruciating tension between his maddening boyishness and the sense of him now as like a permanently immature travesty of Casaubon in Middlemarch. Anna Carteret is touching and very funny as Aunt Juju, defending herself with dignity over the famous mix-up with the hat which here, interestingly, does not seem like an act of long-range premeditated spite on Hedda's part. Also, at an intriguing angle to the norm, is Tim McInnerny's interpretation of the emotionally blackmailing Judge Brack as a man capable of being caught out and false-footed in the course of his insidious and insinuating campaign of trying to gain a sexual hold over Hedda.

The set, too, is just right. It's clear that Hedda has done nothing about rearranging, to her, the disposition of objects in this expensively rented house. For all its stiff formality, it looks, tellingly, as though she and Tesman are camping out in a museum of furniture.