Duke of York’s Theatre, London – until 20 July 2019
Handy timing, to open on what was local Election Day for us ruralists and at a time when everything has a Brexity echo too. Ibsen’s Rosmersholm is preparing for polling-day: the troubled squire and scion of the upperclass family Rosmer is being egged on to liberal revolution by Rebecca, his late wife’s companion, Kroll, a blusteringly conservative local governing schoolmaster explains that the ordinary townsfolk are too uneducated to vote right because a shameless newspaper duped them. So he has funded a rival newspaper to set them right.
Satisfying topical chuckles from the audience at all this, and a sense of muted approval as Hayley Atwell’s Rebecca, slim and white as a candle in her modest frock, throws open the shutters in a dust-sheeted room under the glowering ancestral Rosmer portraits, and speaks of a new age of noble purity in politics, and equal respect for all.
But this is Norway 1886, and the author is Henrik Ibsen with his incurable sense of human corruption and fallibility. So the coming of a golden age of social equality and “nobility” in public life will become tangled in angsty moral and sexual guilt , hypocrisy, blackmail over past sins, and the ghostly haunting of what the housekeeper Mrs Helseth (a small but significant presence very well done by Lucy Briers) sees as a white horse presaging death. Which, the rest of us gradually understand, is plain guilty grief about the dead wife Beth, who threw herself in the mill-race and, gruesomely, jammed up the wheel and flooded the house. Will this tragedy be repeated? Oh yes.
The widower Rosmer and Rebecca speak fierily of the new social leaf that must turn: he at one point shoving flowers, vases and ornaments into the arms of startled grey-clad retainers with a cry of “take everything, go home, be with your families, celebrate each other”. But he is not only under the thumb of Giles Terera’s masterful Kroll, one of Ibsen’s best toxic prigs, but weighed down by guilt at Beth’s suicide (which Mrs Helseth savvily reckons is not unconnected to her lack of marital oats). This is coupled with his growing, if still not especially carnal, love for Rebecca. She is guilty too, it turns out, having hungered for him and influenced poor Beth.
It’s a strong and serious play , some say Ibsen’s masterpiece though not as winning as Ghosts of A Dolls House. Duncan Macmillan’s rendering (directed by Ian Rickson) is excellent. Atwell is superb with Rebecca’s odd, conflicted politico-romantic dilemmas , giving us a teasingly odd portrayal for all its intensity, Terera is menacingly entertaining, and Peter Wight suitably bizarre as Rosmer’s slightly pointless ragged old drunken revolutionary tutor. The problem is Rosmer. Tom Burke takes it seriously, but is not given much help by the author to make him anything g but downright tiresome in his political vacillation. He lacks, on stage at least, the extreme charisma and magnetism which alone could save the character and make us care. Only in his rare eruptions is there life, and his chemistry with Atwell is not – or not yet – powerful. I wanted to be more engaged with this fierce fin-de siecle political play, but Rosmer got in the way.
box office http://www.atgtickets. com to 20 July