Many critics have quibbled about this latest version of Hedda Gabler, penned by the mighty Brian Friel; the comic touches are distracting, the characters are too broad (ha, this is Ibsen!) and even Hedda herself is a tad over-defined. Bull crap. The fact is a gigantic – nay comic sized - star has been born in the shape of Sheridan Smith. For that, we should all be screaming her name from the rooftops.
Hedda Gabler is often described as the great female role; the Hamlet for the fairer sex. This is a silly comparison. Hamlet vocalises almost everything he feels and the joy in watching an actor take on this role is in seeing how they accent these externalised, internal thoughts. In the case of Hedda, everything is trapped inside. It’s a harder role to play; at least, the route to expression is much more obscure. The actress has little chance to voice her feelings and must resort, instead, to actions.
It strikes me that Katie Mitchell – a director who is known for advising her actors on the tiniest moves they make – could encourage some extraordinary Ibsen performances. Anna Mackmin is no Katie Mitchell and, Christ, there are some clunky touches in this production. The worst is a penchant for underlining the dramatic moments with music. Ibsen is a master of structure and emphasis. He certainly doesn’t need ominous chords to underscore his drama. It’s all very much there in the text.
Yet Smith rises above this occasionally over-emphatic production to deliver a performance of exquisite nuance and boiling, burning impact. Some critics have labelled Smith’s Hedda an outright bitch. Others have responded more sympathetically. I had a number of conversations in the interval, with excited spectators, all of whom varied wildly in their reactions to Smith’s haughty Hedda. Such animated and spontaneous discussion points to a performance both strong enough to really tussle with, yet flexible enough to wriggle around in and form your own conclusions.
Hedda’s journey from a trapped and fiendishly bored wife to a vicious fiend with her claws exposed can be tracked simply through Smith’s smiles. There’s a rainbow of repression in those stretched grins. Initially, as Hedda and her husband George (Adrian Scarborough) from their honeymoon, Hedda’s smiles are merely a thin veil for her frustrations. They’re the smiles that no doubt many wives have adopted over the years; an attempt to lightly conceal the deepening frustrations of marriage.
But as the scenes progress and the frustrations deepen, the smiles get tighter and more disturbing. The bigger the smile, the deeper the agony. And when Hedda laughs (such as when she discovers George’s professorship might be in doubt), it’s like a death cry. A horrible screech that reminds us how twisted Hedda’s feelings, Hedda’s soul, has become. It’s as if Hedda’s spirit and energy has been pushed down so deep that it has turned rotten, eating up its host from the inside out. It’s a situation that cannot be sustained. Some might see her death as cowardly. I see it is as brave; a final attempt to kill the ugliness inside her, which she can no longer quench or control.