Norway. Night. Strange noises in the boxroom...

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The Independent Culture

It's all lies, half-truths and murky secrets in Ibsen's 19th-century Norway. In this ultimately searing tragedy, staged by Michael Grandage, Ben Daniels' Gregers Werle has returned to his rich, mercantile father's townhouse after more than 15 years. A highly-strung idealist, appalled by society's hypocrisy and corruption, Gregers has been living out in the woods, shunning his father Hakon, albeit running the family sawmill. Now, a dinner party celebrating his homecoming is attended by smug, chorlting grandees and - at Gregers' request - by his childhood pal, Hjalmar Ekdal.

In an inky green side-room, illuminated by flickering candelabra, Gregers manages to snatch a private conversation with Paul Hilton's Hjalmar and realises his idolised friend has become not only impoverished but also naively ensnared in a web of deceit.

Firstly, there was a financial scandal and dubious court case which ruined Hjalmar's father, Old Ekdal, while Hakon's name was cleared. Thereafter, we glean, Hakon has helped Hjalmar set up a small, home-based photography business while manipulating him into marrying Gina, the Werles' former housekeeper. As Gregers remembers, she used to be the object of Hakon's lecherous attentions, and questions of paternity will soon hang over Gina's young daughter, Hedvig.

This gripping drama - about families and financial exigencies, evangelical myopia and damaged innocents - is additionally compelling if seen in tandem with the truth v lies in Ibsen's Pillars of the Community currently playing at the National. There's a potent sense of impending disaster here too, shot through with unsettling satirical humour. In the confrontation after the Werles' guests have gone, William Gaunt's Hakon looks eminently respectable, with his white beard and glimmering watch-chain, yet his hooded eyes are shifty and he blusters when accused of shabby morals. Black comedy even seems to lurk in the appalling way the missionary zeal of Daniels' Gregers misfires as he determines to move out, to rent Hjalmar and Gina's spare room, and to expose the truth. He tells himself, piously, that their marriage will be purified, rather than blown to smithereens.

In a startling change of scene - courtesy of designer Vicki Mortimer - the townhouse's dark paneling slides away and we find ourselves in the Ekdals' spartan attic flat. Ibsen pre-empted Look Back in Anger's abandonment of posh drawing-rooms by over 70 years. It's airy yet bleak here, with a strange fluttering noise coming from the boxroom under the eaves. That's where Peter Eyre's shambling, half-demented Old Ekdal - reliving his days as a hunting'n'shooting gent - keeps the symbolic, doomed wild duck which is adoringly nurtured by his granddaughter until she is devastatingly rejected by Hjalmar.

This production, when I saw it at its final preview, still had a little way to go before coming into pin-sharp focus. Notably slimmer than intimated by the dialogue, Hilton does not fully capture the egocentric greedy side of Hjalmar, who repeatedly calls for his wife and daughter to serve him more butter. Perhaps though, his flaws seem more real for being underplayed. In turn, Daniels may still be asking himself what exactly his mysterious character is up to, but he is a mesmerising actor: sometimes like a sensitive little boy with his hands clasped between his knees, but also obsessive and predatory. And he homes in on Sinead Matthews' Hedvig with a tender, fixated gaze that's acutely disturbing.

The diminutive Matthews is superb casting. She delightfully captures the staccato formality, funny little quirks and excited flurries of a child making polite conversation. David Eldridge's new English version of the script also shines in that respect. Though you know it's coming, Hedvig's death is hard to bear. Michelle Fairley's stunned grief as her mother - distractedly stroking the child's little stockinged feet - is simply heartbreaking.

To 18 February, 0870 060 6624

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