THEATRE Hedda Gabler, Donmar Warehouse, London / Chichester Festivalr referees the great Ibsen showdown

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The Independent Culture
Hedda to Hedda clash - a double Hedda. Lindy Davies's Chichester staging of Ibsen's great play has opened in the same week that Stephen Unwin's English Touring Theatre version embarked on its London run at the Donmar Warehouse. A coincidence calculated to cause a serious case of bad puns and invidious comparisons in the resulting reviews. The way they measure up to each other can be simply stated. Unwin's is the more carefully pondered account of the play but it narrows the confines within which Alexandra Gilbreath's Hedda is allowed to operate. At Chichester, Davies's production isn't nearly as thought-through but the multiple contradictions in the heroine are encompassed with a thrilling ice-and-fire flair by Harriet Walter.

Hair in a tight bun, severe face propped up by repressively high collars, Gilbreath's stiff, sexless Hedda paces around with her hands clasped behind her back, very much the General's daughter in that she looks in permanent readiness to inspect the troops. Her voice, in its breathy over-deliberateness, sounds like a bad take-off of Margaret Thatcher.

Indeed, the whole performance has the distancing air of an awkward impersonation. In his admirable refusal to present the rest of the characters from Hedda's distorted point of view, Unwin risks giving us a heroine from whom it is all too easy to remain clinically detached. The one moment when this barrier brilliantly breaks down comes when the heroine has dispatched Lovborg to his death and she erupts in a cry that begins as jubilant triumph and ends with her doubled up in despair.

Hedda, in this conception of her, seems too frozenly discontinuous with her past. It's hard to believe she once danced, let alone danced herself to a standstill. The perverted romantic who understands the kinky appeal of an idealised "beautiful" death is more vibrantly on display in Walter's performance, where high necklines are replaced by bewitching decolletage. You watch Gilbreath; the other Hedda pulls you into her nervous system.

Walter's heroine positively reeks of class, but she also shows how Hedda's disdain for the bourgeois conventions of her husband's family is belied by her own genteel horror of scandal. Such self-destructive inconsistencies are beautifully brought out. When she hears there will be a competitor for the professorship her husband has banked on, Walter's face works with a little acidic smile that combines schadenfreude and frustration. Again, when Mrs Elvsted tells her that she has collaborated with Lovborg, Hedda's "really?" is both imperious and tight with jealousy. Pounding her belly with her fists, she communicates the desperation of a woman who longs to shape another person's destiny but not in the bitterly parodic sense of bearing the child of an unloved husband.

The grandeur and the pettiness, the wit and the lack of humour: it's all there. The rest of the cast, by and large, compare poorly with Unwin's. For example, Nicholas le Prevost's Tesman is a floppy-haired, flustered caricature of a scholar, seen at Hedda's valuation, whereas Crispin Letts in the Unwin grows in our respect and manages eventually to deliver a fiery rebuke to his wife. His is one of a number of notable characterisations - from David Killick, who is all urbane insinuation as a luxuriantly moustached Judge Brack, to Jonathan Phillips who, as Lovborg, Tesman's unstable rival, brings a dangerous foxy sexuality and a glint of the unhinged.

ETT at the Donmar. Booking: 0171-369 1732. To 31 Aug

Chichester Festival Theatre. Booking: 01243 781312. To 17 Aug

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