Duke of York’s Theatre, London – until 20 July 2019
Written in 1886, Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm has a new-found poignancy in today’s political climate. Directed by Ian Rickson and adapted by Duncan Macmilan (who also wrote People, Places and Things) this lesser-known work by Ibsen is arguably his most important play.
Set on the eve of an election, pillar of the community John Rosmer (Tom Burke) and his ‘companion’ Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell) are visited by Andreas Kroll (Giles Terera). As the regional governor, Kroll is another important member of the town, but more importantly, he is Rosmer’s brother-in-law – not seen since the death of his sister… Rosmer’s outlook on life and ‘open-mindedness’, however, unnerves Kroll, but not as much as the possibility that he might be ‘in thrall’ of Rebecca’s ‘revolutionary’ opinions.
In all of Ibsen’s plays, the female protagonist (whether they’re conscious of their motives or not) end up as a threat to the status quo and Rebecca West is no exception. Atwell’s Rebecca is erudite, self-assured and ‘worst of all’, rejects the patriarchal assertion to be ‘seen and not heard’. She is every bit Rosmer’s equal and as a sounding board, indirectly responsible for his ‘political awakening’…
Even without his former status as a former member of the clergy, Rosmer has a lot of clout in the community as one of the landed gentry. But if he turns his back on his ‘heritage’ and publicly supports ‘the winds of change’, the previously unassailable authority of the Establishment would be ‘under threat’ and accountable to every strata of society…
One of the many areas that the play mirrors the world today is the way that public opinion is swayed by newspapers. For housekeeper Mrs Helseth (Lucy Briers), what she reads in the papers regarding the events at Rosmersholm is taken as gospel, rather than believe what she’s seen and heard first-hand. Even for Kroll, who is not the most ‘progressive’ of men, he’s astute enough to realise that people often react to who is ‘the loudest’ rather than who is talking the most sense.
As for Rosmer’s former tutor, Ulrick Brendel (Peter Wight) – whose visage is perhaps consciously modelled on the contemporary Karl Marx – we see how an inability to articulate well-meaning thoughts leads to rejection by the townspeople. By the same token, Jake Fairbrother’s Peter Mortensgaard who runs a ‘subversive’ newsapaper, cannot escape the ‘scandal’ of a former relationship, which is used by some to challenge his moral integrity. He’s also a permanent reminder of Rosmer’s former zeal for ‘casting the first stone’ and a cautionary example of what might lie ahead…
Inseparable: Rebecca (Hayley Atwell) and Rosmer (Tom Burke)
Burke brings a time-worn weariness to the role of Rosmer, an equanimity that can only be acquired by the shedding and relinquishing of former certainties. But while he accepts the general malaise of the human condition, a part of himself misses his former ‘ignorant’, ‘happy’ state…
It is, however, Atwell’s performance that anchors the play and convey’s the ‘outsider’s’ perspective on the Rosmersholm residence. Rebecca shares traits with Ibsen’s most famous characters and as such, is even more complex than the rest of his canon in terms of her behaviour and way of thinking. Atwell taps into this reservioir of ‘contradictions’ and elicts Rebecca’s fierce ‘moral code’ which is purposeful and resolute, yet at the same time, leaves little room for personal fulfilment – much to her own frustration…
As Kroll, Terera brings a no-nonsense attitude to the proceedings – dismissive and brusque with anyone who he doesn’t think is his equal. However, he and Rebecca are similar in the sense that they understand the duplicitous and unforgiving nature of the world, and what one must do to navigate it. In contrast, Rosmer – despite his good intentions – is arguably politically ‘naive’ and not considered how the affluent will interpret his support for raising the quality of life for all.
Last but not least, Rae Smith’s set is very much a character on its own right and wordlessly conveys the history and the weight of expection from Rosmer’s forebears. Impressive and ‘intimidating’.
So beyond the political parallels, what else does Rosmersholm have to say about the here-and-now? Any secular society and government should be free from privilege and dogma, but for all our progress, these are issues very much present in the 21st century. Received wisdom says that there is no division between the personal and the political, but is it possible make decisions for ‘the Greater Good’ without bias or empathy? And what moral value is there in political action that isn’t at some level ‘reconciliatory’?
© Michael Davis 2019
Rosmersholm runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London until 20th July.
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