In comparison with her role as stroppy Sue in the Channel 4 series Shameless, Gillian Kearney is not, she says, "what you'd conservatively think of as 'Hedda material'". But in Matthew Lloyd's relatively conservative production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, Kearney plays the General's haughty daughter with an icy contempt for all and everything around her.
Kearney portrays Hedda as a kind of suburban Lady Macbeth, a venomous minx, manipulating and manoeuvring people like pawns. Beneath the glassy reserve she assumes, Hedda is still the schoolgirl bully who so terrified the young Thea Elvsted.
But Kearney conveys a physical fragility and mental uncertainty that make her role doubly ambiguous. It's a nice touch to have her finally almost fulfil her childish threat to set fire to Thea's abundant golden hair with a cigarette.
In his accessible new adaptation, Mike Poulton has the old maid declare that Hedda's new socially inferior husband, Jorgen Tesman, is "still a little boy". In Tom Smith's earnest portrayal of the bourgeois academic, he seems aware of his limitations, coming across more sympathetically than the character usually does, warm-hearted and naive, while at the same time well out of his emotional depth.
Encouraged in his studies, spoilt and doted on by his aunts, he is hopelessly ill equipped to cope with the realities of adult life, least of all a trophy wife who scarcely knows what she wants herself.
He, as much as Hedda, is caught in a web of his own making. Neither partner knew what they were letting themselves in for when making this loveless marriage, into which Judge Brack (Jasper Britton, more sleazy than sinister) has firmly insinuated himself. It's an uneasy ménage à trois, which makes the arrival of a wild-haired Ejlert Lovborg (realistically portrayed by Daniel Weyman) feel like a breath of dangerously fresh air.
Unlike Hedda, nobody will be bored to death by this production. Ibsen purists will find plenty to admire, while newcomers to the play will find the production - with its creepily discordant electronic music and a plush set by Ruari Murchison - as enthralling as any television drama.
In the Playhouse magazine that now replaces the programme (with celebrity-style interviews instead of vital information about setting, acts and even intervals), Ian Brown, the Playhouse's director, aston-ishingly asserts that Ibsen is stuffy. Fortunately, the integrity of Lloyd's production makes no compromises with either the playwright's complex, granite-like qualities or with his genius in focusing the audience's attention - in this play - on the internal workings of the female (in Hedda's case, almost male) mind.
To 11 March (0113-213 7700; then at Liverpool Playhouse, 0151-709 4776), 20 March to 15 AprilReuse content