Hedda Gabler: the female Hamlet?

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Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler is being performed at the Old Vic Theatre, London, until 10 November

Frequently described as "the female Hamlet", the eponymous role of Hedda Gabler has attracted a formidable range of leading actresses since its first performance in 1891, including Maggie Smith, Peggy Ashcroft, Fiona Shaw and now Sheridan Smith. The play itself is one of Henrik Ibsen's finest works - one that is well worth seeing during its current run at the Old Vic theatre in London.

Ibsen was one of the founders of modernism in the theatre. He put hidden Victorian social issues onto the stage. In A Doll's House he took aim at the stifling marital roles of the Victorian middle classes, showing a woman rebelling against her oppression in a way that scandalised Victorian commentators. In Ghosts he daringly depicted the disintegration of a "respectable" family as a result of syphilis. Ibsen didn't just use the theatre to entertain and he didn't defer to social norms - he directly challenged the hypocrisy of 19th century society, exploring its dark side.

Ibsen is now feted as one the greatest playwrights of all time - but this wasn't always the case. Critics were outraged by the way he brought hidden social ills into the light. At the time the Daily Telegraph decried Ghosts as "An open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly...Crapulous stuff." Ibsen uncovered the way that people were bound by stultifying moral conventions and trapped in unhappy or abusive relationships. Nowhere was this more evident than in his women characters.

In the 19th century acting was considered a morally suspect profession by polite society - especially for women. Many thought that actresses were little better than prostitutes. Ibsen struck a mighty blow against this kind of sexism. He created powerful, mouthy, complex women characters, giving female actors some brilliant roles to sink their teeth into. This had a lasting effect - although sadly in many cases there are still too few leading roles for women in the modern theatre.

The role of Hedda Gabler is particularly significant on two counts: firstly she provides a large, juicy and psychologically complex role for female actors. Secondly she is considered, much like Nora in A Doll's House, to be a prototypical feminist. The title alone reflects this. Theoretically during the action Hedda is called Mrs Tesman - Gabler is her maiden name, inherited from her deceased army general father, who remains a powerful presence throughout the play. Unlike Nora, who begins A Doll's House timid and deferential, Hedda has a strong identity separate from her feckless husband right from the start.

Hedda also rejects the notion that women should embrace motherhood. Instead she is bitterly disappointed about her pregnancy, to the point of despair. She is much more attached to her father's duelling pistols. While A Doll's House had depicted a dignified and intelligent woman slowly casting off the shackles of a dull and oppressive marriage, Hedda Gabler is a different beast altogether. Ibsen's Hedda is a passionate, vigorous, manipulative and at times malevolent force of nature. She toys with the lives of others because she has been unfairly robbed of control of her own. She is no blushing heroine.

Anna Mackmin's production at the Old Vic focuses heavily on Hedda's sense of entrapment. The set provides a wonderful backdrop with a series of rooms divided by glass doors and windows, which look reminiscent of a Victorian hothouse. At times the direction labours this point somewhat. There are some rather drawn-out choreographed moments of Hedda pacing around the set through the many doors like a caged animal.

Sheridan Smith, who you may know from the stage production of Legally Blonde and the TV sitcom Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, may seem a strange choice for the title role. But, while she occasionally slipped into melodrama, I nonetheless enjoyed her performance.

Interestingly, although the character of Hedda provides a substantial part for an actor, it is the role of Thea Elvsted, Hedda's childhood rival, who represents the potential for sexual equality. Although jokingly described as a woman "addicted to her anxieties", Thea Elvsted manages to escape the confines of her loveless marriage to run away with her lover with whom she has also been collaborating on a piece of academic work. Their work, which she comes to think of as their offspring, is a counter to the conventional offspring which Hedda so desperately does not want. Thea Elvsted provides the final glimmer of hope at the end of the play as Hedda falls apart.

Hedda Gabler is at the Old Vic theatre until 10 November