Thursday, 9 May 2019

Theatre review: Rosmersholm

Rosmersholm seems to get variously described as Ibsen’s masterpiece, or one his most obscure and difficult works. I would lean towards the latter description – it’s certainly not as frequently performed as the likes of Hedda Gabler or A Doll’s House, and although Ian Rickson’s production makes a stronger case for it than the last time I saw the play, it’s still a dense and wordy evening. Rae Smith takes advantage of having a West End stage (and even pushes it out a bit past the proscenium arch) to create the set, a huge hall in the titular house in rural Norway. The house is a character in the play inasmuch as it represents the legacy of generations of Rosmers, the family who own the adjacent mill and have been the town’s main source of work for centuries. The portraits may still look down imperiously from the walls but it’s onto a crumbling room – Smith’s set takes particular inspiration from the fact that room’s had water-damage.

A year ago John Rosmer’s wife Beth drowned herself in the river; in a grotesque touch that the family still dwell on, her body got jammed in the mill wheel, flooding the area including the room where the action takes place.

Rosmer (Tom Burke) now lives in the house with Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell,) hired to be a companion to the ailing woman and kept on after her death by her widower, to a low-level murmur of gossip from the locals. For the first time since her death, Beth’s brother Governor Kroll (Giles Terera) visits the house the day before a general election, hoping he can enlist the respect his brother-in-law still holds to get the townspeople to vote for the conservatives. In the time since he last saw him though, Rosmer has actually become sympathetic to the radicals Kroll despises; and he didn’t just leave his job as pastor because of his wife’s death, but because he no longer believes in god.

I can see why Rosmerhsholm is a comparatively rare sight on stage, as it sees Ibsen being particularly overtly political, mainly in the form of lengthy political discussions that often turn into outright arguments. There is also the question of just how far the relationship between Rosmer and Rebecca has progressed, but it’s never one that’s going to explode into visible passion, at least not from the buttoned-up John: As the housekeeper (Lucy Briers) comments without a trace of irony, Rosmer children never cry, and the adults never laugh. But Rickson’s production finds atmosphere where it will never find fireworks.

If Smith’s set – at first covered in dustsheets, later made increasingly murky by lighting designer Neil Austin – seems like the setting for a ghost story, Rosmersholm is actually believed to be haunted (by a white horse that means death is coming) and Beth’s suicide is always overshadowing the story, as are Rosmer and Rebecca’s own increasing threats to follow her into the river. It may be set up as a story of family secrets coming out (with one particularly grim revelation about Rebecca’s father that feels a bit too much, given how it’s not even a main plot point) but there’s no missing the political intention behind it. Terera strongly conveys the narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy of the governor who speaks a big game about doing things for the benefit of the people, as long as it doesn’t impact him personally in the tiniest way; and who runs the local temperance society, ostentatiously refusing wine in public but asking for something stronger in private.

Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation is comparatively punchy and doesn’t miss a chance to find the modern-day parallels in the story; the press being used by shadowy figures to manipulate readers against their own interests is a particular focus. When it comes down to the more personal story, however dark and broody Burke’s Rosmer is it’s hard to see quite what made Rebecca fall for him, especially as Atwell is a highlight as a tortured yet still passionate figure. Smith’s set hides a final coup de théâtre that provides a grisly callback as well as an impressive closing visual, and it’s not the only way Rickson brings life and movement to a very talky play, but while I appreciated the play more this time than the last time I saw it, it’s still a bit too cold to draw me in, its dialogue too prone to going round in circles to keep me interested throughout.

Rosmersholm by Henrik Ibsen in a version by Duncan Macmillan is booking until the 20th of July at the Duke of York’s Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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