The part has been hailed the female Hamlet and from the tears on show at last night’s curtain call, Sheridan Smith’s premiere as Hedda was an important moment for the twice Olivier Award-winning actress.
Of course, after almost three hours of pure intensity, anyone would be drawn to tears. For this is Smith’s most testing role yet and one that she embodies with complete commitment, irritation seeping out through her gritted teeth and acidic smile as the woman born into a time not quite ready for her desperate need for independence.
Written in 1890, 23 years before women in Norway would get the vote, Anna Mackmin’s elegant, almost operatically grand production of Ibsen’s classic reaffirms at every step how progressive the playwright’s work was. Unhappily married but rigorously committed to the altogether unexciting George Tesman, Hedda manipulates all around her to control what little of her life she can, finally taking another’s fate in her hands in the most cruel of experiments.
There is more humour than you’d expect, however, and the cast drain every last laugh they can out of Brian Friel’s witty adaptation. Adrian Scarborough is often the butt of the joke as Hedda’s utterly lovely, but unsophisticated husband. From the opening scenes when he kneels at his aunt’s feet like a child and waxes lyrical about his embroidered slippers, skipping around like a red-faced child, to his broken, fragile state following a night on the tiles, Hedda almost audibly bristles with contempt as she responds to his joyful adoration with her clipped, weary retorts.
The pair’s performances undoubtedly steal the show, but there is tough competition from Darrell D’Silva as the silver tongued Judge, Hedda’s only match for manipulation, and Fenella Woolgar as the flappy Thea Elvsted, a woman “addicted to her anxieties”, but to my mind the play’s real feminist hero, not afraid to tell Hedda she is a terrifying bully, and the only woman in the play who will take the scandalous decision to make her way in the world without a husband by her side.
Lez Brotherston’s opulent, drawing room set remains static throughout, Mark Henderson’s rich lighting marking passages of time as the net curtains move in the breeze, seemingly often the only movement in Hedda’s life. Beginning as a symbol of a fantasy home, it ultimately becomes Hedda’s prison, housing a relentless never-changing existence for someone who refuses to look outside of herself, which Ibsen proves, in an electric moment which sees Smith sob into her mourning clothes as Scarborough manically celebrates her unwanted fate, to be a sure route to unhappiness.