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. Her performance is, of course, graceful and seductive, full of sly winks and put-downs, neatly embodied in a figure-hugging slate blue dress and a pendant curly hair-piece down her right cheek.
But she's never fully commanding as a woman seizing her own destiny after that tedious honeymoon with George Tesman. She's a butterfly spirit, not an exotic bird. And she's curiously muffled when she pushes her voice out instead of really collaring the lines in Brian Friel's text (his “version” comes with no credit for the literal translation), written for the Gate in Dublin four years ago.
Instead, director Anna Mackmin (also responsible for that Gate premiere, with a different cast) 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.
Those bloody mitts don’t belong to Hedda; the whole show has suddenly jumped the tracks from naturalism to symbolism, and it feels like a poor exchange for the characters’ inner life. The issue of her pregnancy with the fate of Loevberg’s manuscript is never properly aligned, and the temperature of her indifference is the same with Tesman as with the oleaginous Judge Brack.
These twin masculine poles in her new life are superbly done by Adrian Scarborough and Darrell D'Silva, the first a bustling mole emerging into the light from his researches into medieval domestic craft and husbandry in the Low Countries, the second a dyspeptic badger, with ambitions to be the only cock in the yard.
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, who avoids the clichés of bohemian extravagance at the cost of seeming anaemic and uninteresting. Anne Reid chips in with a chatty Aunt Julia, while Buffy Davis is her slightly downcast maid.
There’s a swing and facility to the script that might go better with the Irish inflections, but many of the great passages sound new-minted, and there’s a glorious elaboration of Tesman’s paean of praise to his own slippers that prefigures the burst of excitement with which he greets the discovery of the notes for Loevberg’s lost masterpiece.