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The fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago on Monday affected the world in many ways, big and small.

On the microscopic level, if the Wall had not come down in 1989, German director Thomas Ostermeier would probably not be presenting his internationally acclaimed production of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa this week.

As a young man, Ostermeier desperately desired to study his craft at the Ernst Busch theatre school in East Berlin, an institution steeped in the traditions of Brecht and Stanislavski.

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"I applied to go, but I couldn't because you had to pay 50 Swiss francs if you were Western German," Ostermeier, now 41 and one of Germany's most famous directors, says over the phone from the Schaubuhne theatre in Berlin.

When German unification came in 1990, the Bavaria-raised Ostermeier no longer had to cough up the tuition fee - and he took the first step in what has been a meteoric career.

Ostermeier's tale is just a small chapter in the tremendous story of the artistic blossoming of Berlin in the 1990s as East and West German artists rubbed up against each other and exchanged ideas. "After the Wall came down, everything was possible," Ostermeier recalls.

"We had empty spaces to rehearse in and a generation of artists that were no longer certain of what was right and wrong. After seeing a whole political system collapse, they were open to something new."

This breaking up of old systems meant that, almost immediately after graduating, Ostermeier was handed the reins at the Deutsches Theater's brand-new studio theatre, a converted rehearsal hall called the Baracke. He made a huge impression there, and two years later it was named the best theatre in the country.

One of Ostermeier's claims to fame was bringing "in-yer-face" British playwrights such as Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill to German audiences for the first time - writers who are now more popular on the continent than in Britain.

However, Ostermeier, who was appointed head of the esteemed Schaubuhne theatre in 2002, has not developed his international reputation with these edgy works, but with the plays by Ibsen, the Norwegian father of modern realism in drama.

Ostermeier's productions are sleek, sexy and stylish, but they are also fairly naturalistic and psychologically realistic. That may not make him seem like a rebel here, but in a German theatre obsessed with the deconstruction and expressionism, it does.

Of course, Ostermeier's Ibsens are straightforward by German standards, not ours. In his A Doll's House , Nora doesn't just leave at the end; she guns down her husband as she does so. As for his Hedda Gabler , it is set in the modern day. So, for instance, rather than burn her lover Lovborg's manuscript in the stove, Hedda takes a hammer to his laptop.

"I know in English-speaking countries, it is different, but it would be extraordinary to do a Hedda Gabler with set and costumes of the time of Ibsen here," Ostermeier explains.

Some American and British critics have, indeed, wondered whether Hedda would act the way she does in Ibsen's play in a modern context. Her motivations for causing havoc with her father's pistols is mysterious, but often ascribed to the limited options of women.

But for Ostermeier, women in Hedda's time had more options than we might think - and women are just as likely to be trapped in domesticity today.

Hedda Gabler - performed in German, with English and French surtitles - is at the NAC by the invitation of the French Theatre's artistic director, Wajdi Mouawad, who has made it his mission to present one foreign-language show each season. Ostermeier has already hosted Mouawad and his solo show, Seuls , at the Schaubuhne and has nothing but praise for him. "I think Wajdi Mouawad is one of the best theatre directors working at the moment," he says. "When I saw Seuls , even before I saw … [ The Blood of Promises ] I thought, finally, this is somebody from the French-speaking community who does interesting theatre."

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Last week, Ostermeier was invited to meet the French Culture Minister, who was seeking input out how to infuse French theatre with some of the white-hot energy that has come out of the German scene over the past two decades.

"He was asking what they could do in France to have this same creative atmosphere that is in Berlin," Ostermeier says. "I said you can't do anything about this, because you don't have any Wall to bring down."

Hedda Gabler runs at Ottawa's NAC through Saturday.

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