A play written more than a century ago might not seem the most relevant, or the most likely to provide absorbing entertainment for modern audiences more interested, perhaps, in the latest offering from Apple Inc.. But 'Hedda Gabler' still has real pulling power both in terms of dramatic tension as well as a surprising amount of humour. Written by Henrik Ibsen in the early 1890s, this adaptation is by the well-known Irish dramatist, Brian Friel.
George and Hedda Tesman have just returned from a six-month honeymoon. Most of that time has been spent roaming round various countries of Europe enabling George to collect material for his academic studies. Hedda frankly admits that she was totally bored on her honeymoon, and one quickly forms the impression that she is also totally bored with her marriage as well. Husband George is an affable, good-natured sort who dotes on his aunts and has just been awarded a doctorate. He hopes his academic standing will shortly be further enhanced with the acquisition of a professorship. However, a more able academic, Eilert Loevborg, has returned from a distant part of Norway and threatens to thwart George's ambitions. Eilert is also a rival in another department having just written a book which everyone is raving about. But Eilert is not the same sort of stuffy academic that George is. Described by others as 'damaged', his friends worry that Eilert will turn again to alcohol, and Hedda seems to have had more than a passing friendship with Eilert before she got hitched to George.
Sheridan Smith certainly tackles an extraordinary range of roles. Over the last couple of years I have seen her as Elle Woods in the incredibly pink, potty and contrived 'Legally Blonde', as a wonderfully chirpy ex-barmaid in Terrence Rattigan's 'Flare Path', and now here she assumes one of the most sought after roles in the theatre, sometimes referred to as the 'female Hamlet'. Hedda Gabler is an immensely complex character whose motivations are hard to comprehend, so this is certainly a massively demanding role. But Ms Smith seems to relish the challenge and produces an exceptional, mesmerising performance. In the first half, she frequently smiles in a way that tells you she is seething inside with menacing frustration or simple boredom. When she confesses to Judge Brack that she is often overcome by dark urges, we certainly believe her. She snaps continually at the maid, refuses to visit George's dying aunt and casually fires her father's gun at the Judge when he is walking up to the house. Hedda Gabler is not the kind of person you would want to get on the wrong side of – but Ms Smith ably avoids the pitfalls of excess. For what seems like a huge amount of the second half, she cries copious quantities of real tears – perhaps not so easy to see from the rear of the stalls, but when I caught the show in preview I was just three rows from the stage, and saw the river of tears flooding out close-up and almost felt them splashing onto my lap - an astonishing feat, but there's much more to Ms Smith's performance, than mere tears.
Adrian Scarborough is in excellent form as the homely academic George who loves his slippers which his aunt has laboriously embroidered for him. Darrell D'Silva as Judge Brack provides Hedda with a rakish confidante, but also causes her demise when he tries to blackmail her. Daniel Lapaine is the 'damaged', unstable yet brilliant Eilert, and Fenella Woolgar is immensely impressive as the anxious Thea Elvsted whose overwhelming love for Eilert is the only thing which seems to give real meaning to her life.
Impeccable direction from Anna Mackmin, inspired and atmospheric music from Paul Englishby and a 'hothouse', claustrophobic set (clad in a forest of distressed woodwork) by Lez Brotherston, complete the artistic endeavours and all contribute to a staggeringly fine, riveting production - proving that 'Hedda Gabler' still packs a punch.
"Ibsen's Hedda was once described as a hoop through which every aspiring female actor must jump; and Sheridan Smith performs the feat with commendable ease and agility. But Anna Mackmin's very good production is marred by the tendency of Brian Friel's new version to spell out things Ibsen left implicit."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"A production by Anna Mackmin that is damagingly deficient in tension or any sense of sick, black-joke inexorability as the escape hatches close on a heroine whose schemes all backfire.... the question 'what is a nice girl like Sheridan Smith doing in a play like this', the sad answer is 'not terribly well'. "
Paul Taylor for Independent
" Fine performer though she [Sheridan Smith] be, the troubled, complex Hedda Gabler eludes her, I’m afraid.
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Some may quarrel with this thrilling new production of Hedda Gabler. The great Irish dramatist Brian Friel is responsible for the new version and he takes some small but significant liberties with Ibsen's text and adds quite a few fresh ideas of his own...But the productions real strength is top flight cast led by the superb Sheridan Smith in the title role. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph