Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre, London

Writer: Henrik Ibsen

Adaptor: Duncan Macmillan

Director: Ian Rickson

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Beth Rosmer is perhaps the most influential character in Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, despite her suicide a year before the curtain rises.

Rae Smith’s set contains a tangible reminder of her death: when she jumped into the river by the Rosmer family home, her body clogged up the water mill, causing a flood which has left its damaged mark up the house’s walls.

And that damage plays out in the characters as well. Tom Burke’s widower John Rosmer, a pastor who has lost his faith, seems to waver between being haunted by the loss of his wife and guilt when he is not quite as grief-stricken as he should be. Estranged from his brother-in-law, and former childhood friend, Andreas Kroll (Giles Terera), the two men find themselves at loggerheads over local elections and the rise of a radical political movement.

While Rosmer and Kroll’s enmity plays out with the rigid spines and perfect tailoring of period Scandinavian drama, Hayley Atwell blasts through from the moment she flings open the doors and windows of the shuttered house. Where the men are controlled, restrained and static, Atwell’s bare-footed Rebecca is anything but: never stationary, the actress bobbing and lunging with barely restrained dynamism with every emphatic line.

Rosmersholm is one of Ibsen’s lesser-performed plays, compared with the likes of Ghosts, A Doll’s House or Hedda Gabler. And yet it is the one work which has the most to say about our modern times. This new adaptation by Duncan Macmillan (People, Places and Things) cannot help but pull the contemporary resonances into focus.

In Ibsen’s world, and even more so in Macmillan’s, politics is in thrall to the power of the celebrity endorsement, as both Kroll and his rival Mortensgaard (Jake Fairbrother) whirl between desiring Rosmer’s backing, and seeking to bring him down if he does not give it. But the true power of politics is not in its effects, but in the power of owning the media: with the rival politicos each owning one of the town’s two newspapers, their power is already far greater than any elections could bestow upon them.

The personal is political and vice versa, though, despite what Kroll may suggest is the opposite. Atwell’s Rebecca is mistrusted as perhaps the cause of Rosmer’s loss of faith, of the breakdown of his marriage, possibly the catalyst to Beth’s suicide. Ibsen ensures that this woman, one of the greatest of his multi-layered female characters, is neither wholly innocent of all of which she is accused, nor totally guilty.

While Burke’s Rosmer is a magnetic portrayal of the unlaughing pastor, a man weighed down by generations of family expectation, it is Atwell who shines as a modern woman in a world that is not sure it wants to accept such a thing.

And while Rosmer and Rebecca’s ultimate decision on how to get out of the corner they have painted themselves into verges on the melodramatic, however much it echoes the events of a year prior, it is sold by the utter determination of Burke and Atwell to inhabit these characters. Their, and Terera’s, work helps to show that Rosmersholm deserves its place in any list of Ibsen’s greatest works.

Runs until July 20 2019 | Image: Johann Persson

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Classic with contemporary resonance

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