Chicago may have just closed in the West End, but in Brian Friel’s sometimes jarringly contemporary version of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Judge Brack talks of going out on the razzle-dazzle. Actually, what he’s looking for is actually much closer to home, and as the object of his enveloping affections, Sheridan Smith’s Hedda Gabler provides plenty of dazzle.
Daniel Lapaine (Eilert Loevborg) and Sheridan Smith (Hedda Gabler) in Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
As the general’s daughter who has just become Hedda Tesman, she finds herself overwhelmingly trapped in her new marriage to an earnest academic, and as she tries (and fails) to keep her own despair at bay, she plays a series of power games that unleash waves of destruction, not least on herself. But Smith, the actress as opposed to the character she is playing, emerges triumphant in every way.
She’s already emerged as a bona fide theatre star, winning Oliviers for both the fluffy pink musical Legally Blonde and Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path. But now, moving on to Ibsen and soon Shakespeare for the new Michael Grandage Company, she proves she can do absolutely anything - she’s the new Imelda Staunton.
She isn’t just a headliner but a serious actress and here she resembles a glamorous cross between a younger Geraldine McEwan and Helen McCrory. She has a radiant, poised beauty, but there are dark, disturbed, destructive impulses running beneath the facade. After she ruthlessly destroys the work of her husband’s academic rival Loevborg and then urges him to take the ultimate destructive step on himself and he does so, she proudly declares “destiny can be molded” with a quiet erotic charge.
She maintains a brooding, palpable tension throughout, delicately sustained in Anna Mackmin’s production that set against Lez Brotherston’s whitewashed box set that has been extended outside the proscenium. Billowing curtains set the scene and are a recurring scenic motif. But great performances do not happen in isolation, and she is notably well matched by Adrian Scarborough as her husband, who can’t quite believe his luck in acquiring her as his wife. A superb supporting cast also includes Darrell D’Silva as Judge Brack, Daniel Lapaine as Loevborg and Fenella Woolgar as Thea Elvsted.