Duncan MacMillan’s Adaption of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm.
Rosmersholm, directed by Ian Rickson, opens on the eve of an election with the forces of conservatism threatened by a growing radicalism. The opposing sides are each represented by different newspapers that seek to sway the voters. ‘There are men in this town still to decide how to vote’, says Governor Andreas Kroll (Giles Terera) in an impassioned plea for the erstwhile Pastor, John Rosmer, to lend his support to the conservative newspaper. One line after another directly addressed the current climate in the UK – ‘politics is a blood sport’ notes the Governor. The audience responds with wry laughter to each insight into the turmoil of current political life enacted on stage.
John Rosmer (Tom Burke), heir to his ancestral home, Rosmersholm, was born into wealth, land and the responsibility to continue the tradition and religion of his forebears whose portraits fill the walls. He has suffered a tragedy – his wife has committed suicide – and he has lost his faith. His belief in women’s rights and equality and his secularism threaten the religious, conservative forces in his town and this tension forms the political drama in the play. Woven into this is the personal grief and emotional revelations that threaten to further destabilise him. A close friend, Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell), who lives at Rosemersholm with him, encourages him to turn towards the new radical ideas of women’s rights, workers rights, and equality between the classes, giving nobility to all.
Rosmer’s evolution into a man preaching Radical Compassion, reaches its zenith in a wonderful scene where he attempts to throw off his past – ‘my inheritance is a vast, moral debt’ – and manically darts around handing out flowers to his servants and inviting them to take whatever they want from his manor house.
Rosmersholm is not only a play about politics but about religion and philosophy. It explores the question of whether there can be morality without religion – a question that was very much alive at the time when Ibsen was writing, with Nietzsche having declared that God is dead.
Ibsen’s interest in the movement for women’s emancipation is transformed into the formidable yet vulnerable, Rebecca West, whose motives and methods turn out to be part of the moral conundrum of the play. ‘I have no vote or status’ she tells Rosmer. Thus, she has to act on the world through the conduit of a man. Those who want to change the world sacrifice their humanity; ideology has no compassion, no nuance. People must and will be sacrificed. Rebecca has had to have a cold heart, yet her heart has not been sufficiently hardened.
All the performances are strong and impassioned. The three leads – Hayley Atwell, Tom Burke and Giles Terera – as well as the smaller roles – are all powerful, especially Lucy Briers as the all-seeing housekeeper, Mrs Helseth. There is not much humour in this play – aside from the early political lines which are amusing to a UK audience – but the little there is comes in the form of Ulrik Brendel (Peter Wright), Rosmer’s childhood tutor, turned writer, who was presumed dead but returned to town with plans ‘to set the world on fire’ with his revolutionary ideas only to discover that it is already burning.
The staging on the play is particularly effective. Taking place in one room – although significant parts of the story take place off stage – the atmosphere develops through very effective use of lighting. At first, the stage is set in deep grey, the room so frozen in time one can almost smell the dust. Later the space is transformed by daylight flooding the stage as the forces of renewal come to the fore. The use of water at the climax of the play is particularly striking.
The play is full of symbolism especially that of the white horse which is seen as a portent of death in Norse folklore.
The portrayal of psychological distress, mental illness, incest and suicide in this play is particularly striking bearing in mind that it was written before Freud. In fact, Freud wrote at length about the play in his 1916 paper entitled Some Character Types Met With In Psycho-Analytic Work. He examined the character of Rebecca West in detail, providing an analysis of her emotional world and unconscious motivations.
Ibsen – a close friend of Edvard Munch – has brought to the stage the theatrical equivalent of The Scream, a look into the isolation of the existential void. This is a dark and riveting play where riddles remain tangled.
Romsersholm is showing from 24 April – 20 July 2019
- Monday – Saturday Evenings at 7.30pm
- Wednesday and Saturday Matinees at 2.30pm
Duke of York’s Theatre,
St Martin’s Lane,
London, WC2N 4BG
We’ve also just reviewed The Lehman Trilogy currently showing at the Piccadilly Theatre, London West End. Check it out!
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