Ibsen's classic Hedda Gabler, starring Sheridan Smith in the title role, opened to press last night (12 September 2012, previews from 5 September) at the Old Vic Theatre.

The play, heralded by critics as a triumph of realism, follows the rapidly-disintegrating marriage of the rich and passionate Hedda Gabler, who is frustrated by the pedestrian lifestyle of her new husband Tesman.

Directed by Anna Mackmin, it runs until 10 November.

Michael Coveney
Whatsonstage.com
★★★

I can understand Sheridan Smith feeling cowed by the role of Hedda Gabler, but I'm surprised she's not risen wholeheartedly to the challenge…she's never fully commanding as a woman seizing her own destiny after that tedious honeymoon with George Tesman…Director Anna Mackmin…gives her an arty framework of billowing curtains, doomy, crestfallen music at key dramatic moments and even a disastrous final few moments of kerfuffle and blood-stained hands on the glass partitions of Lez Brotherston’s dazzling conservatory design…These twin masculine poles in her new life are superbly done by Adrian Scarborough and Darrell D'Silva...and Fenella Woolgar’s Mrs Elvsted is outstanding, too, making an exemplary feminist case for independence without Hedda’s hang-ups. I’m unconvinced, though, by Daniel Lapaine’s Loevberg…avoids the clichés of bohemian extravagance at the cost of seeming anaemic and uninteresting.

Dominic Maxwell
The Times
★

…This subtle, insinuating, quietly daring performance proves Smith to be an actress of rare skill and presence…Anna Mackmin’s superb production has fun - yes, fun - with a translation by  Brian Friel that clarifies some motives and brings out the humour of a house full of people occupying their own private universes. Scarborough is boobyish, but never just a joke. Darrell D’Silva gives a witty swagger to Judge Brack, cheerily firing off new American slang before, finally, laying claim to Hedda with no hint of humour…There’s a moment, as she considers what to do with the abandoned manuscript...when the whole audience hardly dares to breathe…Smith makes us feel her confinement...A triumph all round.

Michael Billington
Guardian

★★

…Anna Mackmin's very good production is marred by the tendency of  Brian Friel's new version to spell out things  Ibsen left implicit… Friel's penchant for embroidering Ibsen is also shown in a later episode when Tesman dreams up ever more preposterous names for Hedda's anticipated baby… Smith's admirable performance is affected by the idea of a psychological double-Hedda in that, in the first half, her affable social mask only slips in rare moments of total solitude. But her performance grows in power and what she shows...is the character's entrapment and isolation…The key performance in Mackmin's production, however, comes from Fenella Woolgar as Mrs Elvsted… one can say that the production's final gesture belongs to Woolgar's Mrs Elvsted: a potent symbol of the New Woman whose advent Ibsen writing in 1890, eagerly anticipated.

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

★★

 Brian Friel… makes it crystal clear that Hedda loathes the fact that she finds herself pregnant as well as adding a scene of wild comedy and rejoicing…As a result the play's shattering conclusion is disconcertingly preceded by uproarious laughter from the audience ... Anna Mackmin's staging is particularly good at creating an atmosphere of nervous unease. The action is at times accompanied with an ominous movie-like sound score, and Lez Brotherston's design of Hedas's luxurious new home, with its glass walls and billowing curtains, is also highly atmospheric…The productions real strength is top flight cast led by the superb Sheridan Smith in the title role…Her Hedda has a doll-like beauty and a smile that she turns on and off like a switch.

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

Sheridan Smith is a sparkler on stage. She has such an infectious impishness. …the show acquires increased wattage every time Miss Smith is in a scene… Mr Scarborough wins laughs but I found it grossly overdone, particularly a scene near the end when George kneels at Hedda’s feet. On a technical point, repeated lines are lost through poor projection…Anne Reid is well cast as fussing Aunt Ju-Ju… Darrell D'Silva enjoys himself as a dissolute judge…But really it boils down to the Sheridan Smith show. Her Hedda may have perfected a Bill Clintonish default expression of a vain smile but it is overused. She is more petulant than wild…Fine performer though she be, the troubled, complex Hedda Gabler eludes her, I’m afraid.

Andrzej Lukowski
Time Out

Smith quietly burns up the stage as Hedda...With cold eyes and dagger smiles, Smith isn't the most demonstrative Hedda ...she is a thoroughly disconcerting one... every utterance a cool, calculated mix of tease and threat...Brian Friel's 2008 translation is a bit odd, amping up the humour with a rambling dissertation from George... The men don't need to be actively silly in order to prove the point that Hedda's intelligence outstrips theirs... Hedda's climactic suicide is not an act of hysteria, but a gesture of supreme control... It banishes any notion that Smith might be merely a charming comic performer or a supporting lady: she is a lead actor of substance, with nothing to prove.

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

Sheridan Smith is hardly a new face, but here, in her most ambitious role to date, she confirms that she’s one of the stage stars of her generation. She is simply thrilling in Ibsen’s portrait of a woman who rebels against a numb and rigid world. Hedda Gabler is often described as having the complexity and power of Hamlet: while that’s an overstatement, the part poses challenges to which Smith rises with assurance and considerable subtlety ... This isn’t to say that Anna Mackmin’s thoughtful production is ideal. It starts sluggishly and contains a few underpowered sequences ... Nevertheless Mackmin's interpretation succeeds in feeling both Victorian and urgently modern. More than ever the play comes across as a study of a woman doomed to be a misfit. Smith’s admirable performance is its beating heart.