THEATRE / Hedda Gabler, Buxton Opera House

Jeffrey Wainwright admires English Touring Theatre's icy rendering of Ibsen's tale of a life that self-destructs long before its final act
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The Independent Culture
Stephen Unwin's bold new production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler presents us with the dramatic revelation that everything truly decisive in the life of its heroine has occurred before the play even begins. Its four acts, with their inexorable, tightening movement, are but the last act of a life that has become only the instrument of its own and others' destruction.

Ibsen's directions point the coldness and control of Hedda right at the start, and from her entrance Alexandra Gilbreath (superbly costumed by Pamela Howard) seems a black icicle, her severe loose gown rising to a chin that cannot be lifted high enough above her contemptible surroundings. Her heels rap so fiercely across the wooden floor they shiver even her new husband Tesman's obtuse mollifications, and her every observation is freighted with irony or sarcasm. When, leafing through an album of "our honeymoon", Gilbreath's tone is viscous with disgust at the memory. She has clearly reached the terminus.

This Cruella Gabler portrait is a decisive, go-for-broke interpretation, compelling and technically adroit, but it leaves two related problems in my mind. The first is that it is difficult to unwind the thread of someone once seized with romantic excitement - the true soulmate of the brilliant but erratic Ejlert Lovborg (Jonathan Phillips) - from this image of a woman who, in her own words, has danced herself out and now sees life as a corridor of domesticity and childbearing. The scenes between Gilbreath and Phillips, though he does possess just the right kind of dangerous gleam, do not re-create that original inspiration or even elegise it. Seeing little of this, and a lot of Hedda's present calculation, the second problem is that it is hard to feel sympathy for her.

But maybe we should not. Maybe, against her, we should value Tesman (Crispin Letts) and Thea Elvsted (Carol Starks) as the play's true heroes. Poor Thea, despised and bullied by Hedda since their schooldays, has - after all - done what Hedda could not do: face certain scandal and shame to follow Lovborg. And Tesman, the most uninspired and pettily materialistic of men, can devote himself to restoring Lovborg's lost manuscript even though he was his overwhelming rival. Perhaps we are meant to dislike Hedda because we see that what her sibilant, aristocratic hauteur cannot bear is the knowledge that she is unable to make herself superior to these lesser souls. This in turn, Gilbreath powerfully suggests, is part of a failure of humanity, a recoil that is essentially connected to the body - sickness, children and her discomforting sexuality.

Even so, their simple virtues are themselves in thrall to the charismatic romantic who turns out to have shot himself in the groin during a row in a brothel. In such a world, only the most cynical of emotional economisers, like David Killick's Judge Brack, can flourish. In the end, Hedda sees that clearly, but can rise above this world only in the manner of her leaving it.

Tonight, Water St, Buxton, Derbyshire (01298 72190); and touring to 6 April (details 01270 501800)