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The housewife heroine

With two productions on the go and more to come, Hedda Gabler is the woman to watch. But why? Here, David Benedict assesses Heddas past while, below, the current stars talk us through the female Hamlet
Jenny Agutter has spent her entire career trying to eradicate the nation's memory of her cry "Daddy, my Daddy" at the climax of The Railway Children. Perversely, playing General Gabler's daughter in Charles Marowitz's re-write at the Roundhouse in 1980 probably helped. Her performance included giving oral relief to Lovborg, the love-interest, in a newly written brothel scene, an act underlining insider jokes about giving good Hedda.

Not that you need to take liberties to come up with novel interpretations. Volatile, vindictive, capricious, calculating and challengingly elusive, Ibsen's pistol-packing heroine is the actress's Hamlet. Nothing in the repertoire except Cleopatra comes close to her emotional range. Almost every actress you can think of has had a shot at the bored 1890s woman who returns from a six- month honeymoon with a man she has never loved and rather than face an intolerable future of colourless domesticity, uses her father's pistols to kill her lover before shooting herself.

A drama of self-destruction or a farce of high feelings? Hedda resists definition, which is what makes it the dream role. Whatever translators and directors decide, the actress has a myriad of moments to play. The overwhelming wealth of possibilities was once outlined by the former Evening Standard critic, Milton Shulman, who listed notable interpretations "a bitter jester in a black comedy" (Peggy Ashcroft); "a gaunt portrait by Modigliani displaying the anguish of someone sickened by love" (Maggie Smith); and "as clammy and cosy as a hostess of a concentration camp" (Glenda Jackson).

The lucky ones, like Janet Suzman, get to play her twice. She first did it on TV, a performance she describes as "More mischievous, lighter, quicker, more heartless." On stage in 1977, "I was driven by the demon winds. The brilliance of the character is that like Hamlet, it's a distillation of Western dissatisfactions, but unlike Shakespeare, she doesn't have huge speeches. That makes her a more mysterious voice. It's immensely private. She has great silent soliloquies, like the scene where she burns Lovborg's manuscript, in which so much of her character is revealed."

Suzman's stage portrayal was remarkable for its intense physicality, keening in silent grief, one arm outstretched in agony, the other pushing against her swelling belly. She sees Hedda's pregnancy as pivotal. "Never forget that when she shoots herself, she kills two people, not one." Bernard Shaw dismissed Hedda's pregnancy as irrelevant and the subject tends not to figure at the heart of productions, probably because the vast majority are directed by men.

This was not the case with Fiona Shaw's wrung-out portrayal in 1991, which was directed by Deborah Warner. Like Bergman's celebrated, non-naturalistic 1970 production starring Maggie Smith, Warner added a brief, silent prologue stressing the pregnancy and displaying her ever-deepening terror at her physical state. The slightest allusion to it producing a violent physical reaction: her nerves scrubbed raw, hands flying to her face. Like Maggie Smith, who won the second of her five Evening Standard Awards, it netted her several pieces of sculpture.

It's that kind of role. This year, awards judges and theatregoers will be spoilt for choice. Out of Joint are planning a tour for the Spring; Independent Face of '96 Alexandra Gilbreath is at the Donmar Warehouse after considerable success in Stephen Unwin's English Touring Theatre production, and Harriet Walter is in preview at Chichester directed by Lindy Davies. Whoever you see, you can be sure the actress is busy trying to resolve the conundrum so succinctly described by Suzman. "It's in the title. You have to marry both Hedda, the inner woman, and Gabler, the outer woman. To show how the world sees her and how she sees herself." She pauses then adds, mischievously: "Very few manage it."