Brian Beacom

INGRID Bergman, Janet Suzman, Diana Rigg, Glenda Jackson; what do they all have in common, beyond the fact they are renowned actresses?

Answer? They have all played Hedda Gabler.

Indeed, most of the world’s top female stars have played, or longed to play Henrik Ibsen’s creation.

Why? Hedda defines the word ‘complicated.’ She’s quite capable of anything – and everything.

“Hedda is manipulative and scheming, yet vulnerable,” says Lizzy Watts who stars in the eponymous role this week.

“She says the most awful things, and then the evil in her emerges.

“But this is not a story of an evil woman wreaking havoc. She is gripping.”

Therein lays the challenge. How to play a woman who reveals so many emotions; anxiety, hate, desire, raging depression, sadism - all in the space of a day?

Hedda’s story tells of her return from honeymoon with academic Tesman, to the house she always wanted but can barely afford.

It becomes clear he has never loved her husband but married because time is against her.

And she felt she may be pregnant.

When Hedda’s husband and his writer rival Lovberg and predatory Judge Black end up in a brothel, Hedda has a girly night in.

But it’s when she and the maid and Mrs Elvsted talk about life and love what becomes evident is Hedda seems headed for a life of abject disappointment.

Yet, while she looks to be controlled, Hedda tries to take back that control, with the most disastrous of results.

“We discover that Hedda has manipulated a situation, but she herself has been manipulated,” says Lizzy of the story of the dissection of domestic power.

But surely Hedda is a sociopath?

“Well, that’s one way of looking at it,” says the actress smiling. “I prefer to think she reacts to moments. What she does is spontaneous rather than planned out.”

The actress admits there is a real pressure that comes with the role, in following in the footsteps of some many talented performers.

How do you play a character so angular? How do you find the darkness that has to be conveyed?

“You get it from rehearsals,” she says. “There is so much to her, she’s so complicated that you try not to fixate on her, or even try to understand her.

“You just go through her story, minute by minute and don’t get bogged down.

“You certainly don’t come into rehearsals having figured out her character.”

She adds; “What really helps is the production moves at a massive pace. What the rehearsals became was about people reacting to each other.

“Working in this way is quite filmic. And you’re in costume from Day One so it really helps that you’re off and running.”

Ibsen’s play was first performed in Munich in 1891. But this production has been re-conceived by award-winning playwright Patrick Marber.

“It’s a modern take but it hasn’t been embellished by language,” says Lizzie.

“He likes you to bring your own personality to the text.”

Does a 127 year-old play still have relevance today?

“Oh yes. It’s very relevant. The themes still remain; why doesn’t she leave her husband? There are still so many women trapped today. And there is the notion of a woman in her thirties not wanting children.

“There is also the story of exploitation of women.

“It’s been suggested there are Harvey Weinstein manipulation/Hollywood themes here.

“She gets to manipulate the men, but then the men somehow get to her and they are all over her.”

Lizzy adds; “Some may say the play is bleak, but I found all the characters to be familiar. And this isn’t a buttoned-up, corseted period piece at all.”

Lizzy Watts has already attracted great reviews for her performance. WhatsOnStage gave her five stars and said “This is a Hedda unlike I have ever seen.”

But that doesn’t mean Lizzy takes anything for granted.

“It’s terrifying,” she says of the Hedda responsibility, grinning. “You think about all the Heddas who have gone before and there’s National Theatre success to think about. You don’t want to let the side down.

“You only get one chance to play this role and you really want to do it justice.”

Lizzy Watts reveals, refreshingly, when not acting she tries to work outside the industry.

“It can be a release,” she explains. “But then you have to drop the job as soon as the phone rings. It’s the way of things. And it’s not always been easy.”

Lizzy always wanted to act, but it was only when she reached 6th form in school she realised it could be a possibility.

She threw her heart into her career and gradually the effort has paid off.

Now, she has a range of theatre productions to her credit and many powerful reviews, describing her “great energy” and “nerves of steel.”

Yet, she was surprised to land the part of Hedda.

“I generally play younger,” she says, smiling. “I certainly didn’t expect to be playing her.”

What does she bring to Hedda that perhaps others have not?

“I like to think I bring a vulnerability,” she says.

“And a sense of humour.”

Humour? In Hedda Gabler? Isn’t this a story of frustration, desperation, humiliation and death?

“Yes, all of that,” she says, grinning.

“But there are laughs in this play as well, such as when she says the most shoddy things. She really is a special woman.”

•Hedda Gabler, the Theatre Royal, January 15-20.