Often described as ‘the female Hamlet,’ Hedda Gabler is one of western theatre’s greatest acting challenges. With a brand-new production from the National Theatre coming soon to Norwich, we took the opportunity to look back on some of the top actors who’ve tackled the part.
National treasure, BAFTA-winner, Hogwarts professor: a young Maggie Smith played the role of Hedda Gabler for a 1970 production in the Cambridge Theatre directed by cinephile-favourite Ingmar Bergman.
It was a revival of a production which Bergman had directed in his native Sweden, and his first play outside of Scandinavia. Unfortunately, the critics weren’t kind to the production. Bergman himself was quoted as saying “’Hedda in London was not a good production. All the rehearsals were plagued. I despise London.”
In The Aviator, Cate Blanchett faced the daunting prospect of playing Katherine Hepburn, the very epitome of movie stardom. And in Lord Of The Rings, she was an emissary from another species. Yet Blanchett considered Hedda to be a particular challenge, describing it as “Shakespearean; something every actor struggles with.”
It was a role that Blanchett claims she had to be “dragged into, kicking and screaming,” but play the part she did, in a 2006 New York production, with a script adapted by husband Andrew Upton. It focused on Hedda’s mental state, and Blanchett described the experience as playing the “wild ambiguities” of a “mythological, destructive time bomb.”
Sheridan Smith starred onstage in the likes of Funny Girl and Legally Blonde, but Ibsen’s dark tale might not be what her fans would have expected her to tackle next.
But Smith, who found small-screen fame in Gavin & Stacey and Two Pints Of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and came across in both as an exemplar of Northern warmth, used that famous niceness to craft a Hedda whose polite façade could drop in an instant.
Writing in the Telegraph, Andrew Sinclair hailed her performance as “superb,” noting her “doll-like beauty and a smile that she turns on and off like a switch.”
Queen of the West End, two-time Academy Award winner, and a former junior transport secretary in Tony Blair’s government – Glenda Jackson certainly had plenty of life experience to call on when she played Hedda.
She brought her customary power to the part in a Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Trevor Nunn. In 1976, Nunn adapted the show into a feature film, titled simply Hedda, and Jackson earned another Oscar nomination for her performance.
This production of Hedda Gabler comes to us following a sold-out run at the National Theatre, where Ruth Wilson starred. Known for her role in the BBC’s Luthor, and recently in The Affair alongside Dominic West, she opened to rave reviews.
“All the facets of a human are in her,” Wilson said: “You can’t contain her or put her in a box. That’s unusual for a female character – more often you know what the angle is from the start.” Critics called her Hedda “one of the performances of the year,” and the production (conceived by visionary director Ivo van Hove) “a triumph.”
With reviews like that, Ruth Wilson can’t have been an easy act to follow, but Lizzy Watts certainly made the role her own when she took over for the UK tour of van Hove’s production.
Watts, who has an extensive stage career as well as TV roles in Midsomer Murders and The Durrells, has been praised for delivering “a brilliant contemporary portrayal.” Discussing the role, Watts describes Hedda as “dark, vulnerable and witty,” a role that “allows you to really explode – which is great!”
Hedda Gabler, wild, uncontrolled and unpredictable, is clearly a challenge that Lizzy Watts relishes – and we can’t wait to see how she tackles it. She’ll be starring here from 7-11 November: buy tickets now at Norwich Theatre Royal.