This has been dubbed Ibsen’s darkest and most complex play. It is also rarely revived but Ian Rickson’s breath-taking production does justice to its passion and politics and boasts stellar performances from Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke. They richly deliver on Shaw’s notion of “the deep black flood of feeling from the first moment to the last”.
Written by Ibsen in 1886, the play has echoes of its immediate predecessors. As in Ghosts, the dead weight of the past is made visible: John Rosmer, a widowed pastor who has lost his faith, is surrounded by portraits of his forebears. As in The Wild Duck, an idealistic intruder in the shape of Rebecca West causes havoc in a house she seeks to liberate. Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation, while respecting Ibsen’s structure, makes vital changes to the original. Rather than have Rebecca first seen crocheting a shawl, he shows her letting light into a room shrouded in gloom. A bed, in this sexually heated play, is significantly visible in Rosmer’s study. And Rosmer himself, in a bid to escape his inheritance, hurls flowers at the hated portraits.
What is Ibsen’s play ultimately about? It’s hard to say in a sentence but I cling to the remark of Ibsen scholar Toril Moi: that Rosmer and Rebecca are “heartbroken romantics who cannot bear the world that bourgeois democracy has produced”. They are Tristan and Isolde in a political setting – as this production makes abundantly clear. Rosmer’s brother-in-law, Kroll, vividly played by Giles Terera, is a right-wing bigot whose views are disowned by his wife and children. But the left comes off no better. Mortensgaard, in Jake Fairbrother’s chilling performance, is a radical editor who attacks “power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many” but who cynically ditches Rosmer when he realises he is of no use.
Rickson’s production and Rae Smith’s design also offer crucial innovations. One is the presence of servants desperate to enjoy the freedom Rosmer and Rebecca earnestly talk about. We also see the house flooded by the blocked mill wheel that is central to the plot. But it is the lead performances that motor the evening. Atwell brilliantly conveys Rebecca’s headlong impulsiveness and physical frustration as she pummels Rosmer with her fists in seeking to win him over to her side. Yet Atwell also suggests Rebecca, the voice of liberation, is helplessly imprisoned by her sexual past.
Burke plays Rosmer with fierce intelligence as an honourable but lost soul who craves certainty and who is never more moving than when he cries: “I want my God back.” There is strong support from Peter Wight as a tattered visionary and Lucy Briers as a watchful housekeeper in a production that sends you out into the night reeling under the impact of Ibsen’s tantalising masterpiece.
“Emotional and twisting, brilliantly told”
“A West End production of revelatory finesse”
When Ibsen’s demanding but rewarding play of political fervour and turbulent emotion received a premiere in the West End in 1891, five years after it was published, it got pummelled by the press, its author denounced as “a local or provincial dramatist”.
Critics, and the public, have long since recognised the Norwegian master’s greatness, but around Rosmersholm there lurks a sustained lack of familiarity that has drifted into acquired indifference. Anthony Page made the case for it at the Almeida a decade ago but now Ian Rickson, a byword for directorial meticulousness, has taken the plunge with a West End production of revelatory finesse – which receives hypnotically controlled and considered performances from its two principals: Tom Burke – recently seen as JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike on the BBC – and Hayley Atwell, globally known as Marvel’s Agent Carter, currently packing out cinemas in Avengers: Endgame.
Rickson’s eye is on everything – and your eye will be too, as you observe the shifting relationship and power-dynamic between Burke’s mournful yet idealism-filled pastor John Rosmer, whose wife drowned herself at the nearby mill, and the live-in assistant (Atwell’s Rebecca West) who has quietly transformed, and liberated, his thinking.
Ibsen offers an ambitious fusing of intimate and intricate feeling with a broad encapsulation of societal schism: a time of ascendant radicalism versus a reactionary push-back from the status quo (sound topical? Duncan Macmillan’s judicious new version absolutely makes it resonate that way).
A magnificent, high-walled interior (designed by Rae Smith, beautifully lit by Neil Austin) takes us inside a milieu of fraying and – to Rosmer’s guilt-prompted thinking – renounced privilege, filled with fussing, eavesdropping servants. Towering windows suggest the wider world beyond, bigger debates flooding in.
We’re drawn into them. Free-thinking, atheistic, even amoral Rebecca propels her newly faith-lapsed master towards going public with his egalitarian zeal, incurring the wrath of his reactionary brother in law Kroll and possibly swinging imminent elections (the local reformist paper wants to use him as a front-page polling-day splash). Atwell is beautifully withheld and richly ambiguous, observing her station and keeping her counsel as a woman used to men doing the talking, and yet implying with amused glances she can see further than anyone. Is she an agent of salvation or damnation?
Burke is grave, earnest, weighing his words, holding out his hands in a helpless fashion, as if being dragged somewhere by an unseen force; between them swirl eerie, vaguely erotic currents of self-denial and mutual fascination. They make exposition-laden talk sound natural, build subtly to points of violent psychological distress.
Lightening the mood, while further complicating our response, Giles Terera (the London production of Hamilton’s Olivier-winning Burr) makes Kroll a vivacious, hard-to-dislike elitist snob, Peter Wight is terrific as a childhood tutor turned drunken bohemian, gulping down wine and fish-scraps, and Lucy Briers makes her mark equally as the reserved house-mistress shot through with foreboding. A treat.
“Crisp, absorbing, expertly paced”
Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke smoulder in this rarely revived play by Henrik Ibsen. It's a haunting vision of two passionate characters weighed down by the past – and despite being more than 130 years old, feels sharply up-to-date in its sense of the ugly ambition and wild hypocrisy that can thrive at a time of political crisis.
Burke is John Rosmer, an idealistic ex-clergyman who's uncomfortable with the privilege he's inherited. A year has passed since his wife Beate's suicide, and now her friend Rebecca wants to open up his grand house (handsomely designed by Rae Smith), removing the shrouds from the pictures and filling the space with light.
Rosmer's personal anxieties are matched by political ones. On the eve of an election, the local press is in a state of frenzy. One influential newspaper is intent on stirring up social unrest. Its main rival belongs to Beate's brother, Giles Terera's aggressive Dr Kroll, who hopes to halt the rise of the Left and is dismayed to find Rosmer embracing progressive ideas.
The play is a hard one to get right – full of protracted conversations and scenes that verge on melodrama. But here, in a crisp new version by Duncan Macmillan, it's absorbing. Ian Rickson’s production is expertly paced, and there are vivid supporting performances, notably from Peter Wight as exhausted radical Brendel, at times looking remarkably like Steve Bannon.
Burke broods darkly as the wavering Rosmer, gnawed by guilt and submerged desire. Yet it's Atwell who truly mesmerises as his would-be soulmate. In keeping with Ibsen's requirements, her Rebecca is a mix of refinement and ruthlessness. There's a lovely freedom and lightness in her interpretation, but even as she radiates reasonableness a hint of danger always lingers.
“Nothing short of inspiring”