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Hedda Gabler: The Ice Woman Cometh

Legally Blonde star Sheridan Smith follows in some formidable footsteps as she takes on the daunting role of cold-hearted Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic. Paul Taylor chooses the most memorable portrayals of Ibsen's ill-fated heroine

She was comprehensively adorable as Elle, the chihuahua-toting bimbo turned Harvard hot-shot in the musical version of Legally Blonde.

In the Trevor Nunn revival of Rattigan's Flare Path, she brought a hefty lump to the throat as she conveyed the pluck and generous spirit of a brassy former barmaid anxiously awaiting news of her Polish-aristocrat, missing-in-action pilot husband.

But even Sheridan Smith's most devoted theatre fans might be forgiven for thinking that these parts (which won her two Olivier Awards in successive years) are not the most orthodox stepping stones towards playing Hedda Gabler. The original lethally Desperate Housewife, Ibsen's character has been described as the challenge closest to Hamlet in the female repertoire and since Hedda was unleashed on the world in 1891, the role has attracted a formidable range of top-flight actresses keen to test themselves against its exceptional demands – from Peggy Ashcroft, Maggie Smith, Joan Greenwood and Janet Suzman to Fiona Shaw, Eve Best, Cate Blanchett and Harriet Walter.

It's an understatement to say that Sheridan Smith is cast against type in the Old Vic's much anticipated revival, now in previews. From her stage work and from her winning television appearances on Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and Gavin & Stacey, we associate her with radiant working-class warmth and likeability. In extreme contrast, Hedda – the orphaned daughter of General Gabler – is a chilly, fastidious snob who is not out to win any popularity contests and who considers herself a distinct cut above the provincial middle-class society to which she returns after a six-month honeymoon, toxic with boredom and tethered to the dull academic whom she married as a last resort. And the worst of it is that she is now pregnant – a doom she refuses to acknowledge publicly and which intensifies her sense of entrapment.

The unexpectedness of the casting is integral to the thinking behind the production, reveals its director, Anna Mackmin, who declares that Smith is "a great actress". The performer's built-in appeal is being harnessed in a calculated bid to counter "the prejudice that Hedda is just a cold-hearted, calculating bitch – a view which prevents people from approaching her with the right openmindedness. Yes," Mackmin continues, "Hedda behaves appallingly" – among other enormities, she cunningly drives her erstwhile intimate, the brilliant reformed rake Løvborg, back to the bottle; she burns the manuscript of the work that would have made his name, and offers him the pistol for what she deludedly imagines will be a beautiful romantic suicide – "but these things are profoundly understandable in terms of the moment of history in which is trapped, with women literally and metaphorically corseted, and in the light of her lonely, isolating background, brought up in an army barracks, where death is ritualised, by a widowed father".

I suggest to Mackmin that, in being prepared to venture so far outside her comfort zone, Sheridan Smith is exhibiting another quality Ibsen's anti-heroine fatally lacks: courage. Hedda may aspire to be a bohemian free spirit but she has a genteel terror of scandal. "She really wants to live the whole life of a man," the dramatist wrote and the play sharply depicts the male-dominated world that can offer her no outlet for her powers. But you could argue that the piece is doubly feminist in declining to present her as si mply a casualty of the age.

Hedda is the victim not just of circumstance but of her own enigmatic and divided nature. Is there a more compellingly conflicted in theatrical literature? She's a seething mass of contradictions: reckless, yet cowardly; sexually eager, yet frigid; witty but without a sense of humour, a control freak who can only live vicariously but like a dramatist manqué who loses her grip on the genre through that she is manipulating her surrogates etc. She has been compared to Iago in her destructive envy, but unlike Shakespeare's nihilistic villain, she is bleakly aware of her own inner emptiness and confounded by its mystery and she awakens our pity as her schemes backfire.

Such paradoxes are the reason why the role is at once so rewarding and so daunting, as is the freedom the play gives to the leading actress to arrive at her own view regarding the tricky balance in Hedda between victim and victimizer. In the post-war period, Peggy Ashcroft's breakthrough performance in 1954 was the first to underline the satiric and comedic side of the character – the waspish wit and the malign practical joker who uses the insinuating Judge Brack for wild target practice with one of her father's pistols. She was followed by other incisive Heddas – among them an icily languid and mordantly sardonic Maggie Smith marooned in Ingmar Bergman's doomy, high-concept 1970 production at the National and Janet Suzman's richly detailed performance at the Duke of York's in 1977.

In later times, the two outstanding portrayals, for me, have been Fiona Shaw, directed by Deborah Warner in 1991, and Eve Best who played her for Richard Eyre in 2005. From the outset, Shaw's Hedda, evidently a neurotic wreck after the six-month honeymoon, was a suicide waiting to happen. In a wordless preamble, she was seen stalking in her nightgown round a darkened drawing room searching between her legs in vain, frantic hope for signs of her period. Her social mask was one of manic, end-of-her-tether irony. As she beat her fists on the doors and kicked around the furniture, you got a matchless impression of Hedda's nightmare sense of suffocation, but you also saw that this had not blinded her to the part her own lack of guts was playing in her fate. Tellingly, she cradled the manuscript (Løvborg's and Thea's "baby") and fed it into the stove not page by page (melodramatically), as stipulated, but in one mad, impulsive thrust. Then, instantly and shamefacedly, she panicked and made to snatch it back.

The girl bully was still shiveringly evident in Eve Best's splendid Hedda, a horsey, posh, sneering beauty and very convincing as a General's daughter but, through Lisa Dillon's affecting performance as Thea, Eyre emphasised the painful irony that the schoolmate Hedda terrorised has now become a humiliating rebuke to her pusillanimity – prepared to risk the scandal Hedda dreads by leaving her husband for a man she can collaborate with and inspire. It's not lost on Best's Hedda that hers is a decadent and passé version of the avant-garde and the future lies with brave, hard-working women like Thea.

Rather as with David Tennant and Hamlet, Sheridan Smith's presence in the Old Vic revival will pull in a public new to both Hedda Gabler and to Ibsen. It's arguable that regular theatre-goers have become too predisposed to think of the heroine as the self-tormenting author of her own oppression, impotently conscious of the ultimately inexplicable emptiness within. With Smith and a section of the audience coming completely fresh to this field, now may well be the moment for some salutary adjustment to that complex victim/victimiser balance.

Given her huge and natural talent for forging a rapport with the public, there will be no danger of Smith's Hedda emerging as some monstrous exotic, to be viewed from a safe distance. And that ability to arouse widespread identification will be a major asset here. Ibsen must have known that he was dramatising certain of his own hang-ups and inhibitions about scandal, sex and freedom through her. And indeed, regardless of our gender, the character speaks to that part in all of us that fears that we will never be able to find a sphere that satisfies our deepest needs and that, through failures of generosity, we are doomed to be our own worst enemies. A great, gut-wrenching performance of this role can make you feel like murmuring sotto voce: Hedda Gabler, c'est moi.

'Hedda Gabler', Old Vic, London SE1 (0844 871 7628) to 10 November