Hedda Gabler at The Old Vic

Such is the magnificence of Anna Mackmin's new production of Hedda Gabler, the only thing really missing was the kind of climactic sense of total catastrophe which Ibsen obviously intended.

Reviewers should never reveal the whole plot – otherwise what's the point? And I was pretty shocked, but not horribly shocked, by the extent of Hedda's ... What shall we call it? ... Frustrated involvement?

Ibsen established a reputation for being able to tackle the great theme of the inequalities afforded to women to sort their lives out for themselves at a time when, in Europe at least, their rights were being hotly debated.

Women, at the end of the 19th century, were a pretty restless group and Ibsen's craftsmanship is to paint a picture of still slight servitude, emerging confidence, downright impudence – all played out in what for many women was an like an open prison environment.

They couldn't quite break free but they had more and more freedom.

Two other things emerged for me from this production.

For the plight of women also read plight of human beings. Many of Hedda's frustrations are not limited to her own sex and the men, you sense, are equally imprisoned.

But the men are additionally manipulative, stupid, self-absorbed and downright ignorant of how they come across to their women folk.

Brian Friel's version certainly captures Ibsen's multifaceted caricaturing of human nature interacting. Whilst the focus is inevitably on Hedda, every single character has something pertinent and relevant to add to the debate about the essence of human nature and the interlocking foibles so vividly and unaplogetically presented.

A word here about the actors on display. There is not a single disappointment. It is an absolute acting masterclass worthy of anything Kevin Spacey has brought to The Old Vic so far.

Adrian Scarborough is majestic in his role as George Tesman getting every syllable in the right place. He is one of those actors who has a face for TV, film and the stage and his repertoire is truly astonishing. Scarborough got the audience applauding midway through the fourth act for a celebration of good news which is mesmerising for its stupidity.

Darrell D'Silva cuts a dashing figure as Judge Brack and Buffy David, Daniel Lapaine and Anne Reid deliver flawless performances.

A special word for Fenella Woolgar who plays Thea Elvsted with a real pathos and gets more and more believable as the play goes on.

But Sheridan Smith's Hedda is surely one of those one off performances that you remember long after the curtain has come down.

Smith is so believable, perfectly poised and adopts a unique killing smile, particularly to the audience when others are in full flow, that she becomes the epitome of all the Hedda has come to represent to literature.

Go. You must.

More about Hedda Gabler at The Old Vic

• Wednesday 5 September 2012 to Saturday 10 November 2012 at The Old Vic

See listing for Hedda Gabler in our What's on guide...

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