It’s not all so long ago that the idea of Sheridan Smith tackling one of Ibsen’s greatest roles would have been met with derision. Now, following a steady stream of more serious parts illustrating that there’s far more too her than being a bubbly blonde, this seems less like stunt casting and more about giving a talented young actress a chance to shine in an undeniably difficult part. While her Hedda is unlikely to go down as one of the greats, she does a strong job with what is arguably one of theatre’s most contradictory characters.
Anna Mackmin’s production is visually stunning and cinematic in scope. Lez Brotherston’s set is deceptively traditional – a drawing room and conservatory – but feels both classic and modern in its unfussy, clean lines, and Mackmin uses it to fantastic effect. There is a constant opening and closing of doors – secrets shut out, secrets locked in – and Mackmin frequently and strikingly frames Hedda through doorframes or traps her behind glass, creating a series of tableaux so stylised they could be paintings, but which beautifully illustrate the constructed artifice of Hedda’s existence and emphasise her isolation.
Brian Friel’s version of the text is light and nimble, bringing out much of the humour in the piece, although this is not without cost – the first half of the play comes across as an almost Wildean comedy of manners which means that the shift to tragedy in the second half jars. The decision to play Hedda’s husband George as a comedy buffoon may help up the laughter levels, but it dampens the emotion: in seeing him merely as a fool, we lose much of the sense of him as a fundamentally decent man tragically deluded as to the nature of his wife. Adrian Scarborough is a superb comic performer and his reaction to his wife’s pregnancy is something of a tour de force which draws spontaneous applause from the audience, but at times his performance felt like it belonged in a different production. Anne Reid as his fussy aunt and Fenella Woolgar’s nervy Thea are similarly hampered, making it difficult to really engage with either of them, although Woolgar’s glacially calm resilience in the face of the final tragedy hints at a steel core, something of which it would have been nice to see more.
As the lascivious Judge Brack, Darrell D’Silva is landed with a running joke about Americanisms that wears thin very fast, but he captures the reptilian nature of his character well, and there is a sense of real threat about him. Conversely, as the doomed scholar Loevborg, Daniel Lapaine conjures the weakness of a man too easily swayed, but lacks the edge of someone capable of real debauchery. There is little chemistry between him and Smith, which means that their attraction lacks credibility, although this does make it more plausible when she treats his death as a piece of performance art, her ultimate disappointment being only that he bungled it.
But what of Hedda herself, the role on which any production must stand or fall? Doll-like in her prettiness, Smith’s Hedda is playful, mercurial and sly – and more than a little cruel. Smith ably communicates the sense of a woman who relies on a carefully crafted box of tricks, but her performance initially lacks depth – her social duplicity is so visible, flickering across her face, that there is little sense of anything going on behind the façade. She fares better in the second half of the play, as things start to unravel and her constriction becomes palpable, her petite body visibly clenched in frustration and despair as she sees her options drain away from her. Alas, this central performance is undermined by a text that never feels like it gets fully to grips with her dilemma or makes real the relationships around her: I was left wondering how much more she could have given us had she not been surrounded by such comic tropes.