Ibsen was inspired to write Rosmersholm after returning to Norway after years of exile and finding his native country’s politics immersed in upheaval and division. In his story of former pastor John Rosmer torn between conservative tradition and radical change, he depicts a world where politics is like a blood sport, with rival factions fighting for votes through a muck-raking press. In Duncan Macmillan’s new adaptation, these tensions are articulated in a way that has unmistakable echoes with Brexit Britain. Politics has become more about volume than sense, more about feelings than facts. The press is divided by fiercely opposing political sides, seeking out one scandal after another and printing lies “that even its owners don’t believe”. To some, it appears that the agenda is “they want us to fight to distract us”.
But the drama remains firmly set in the late 19th century, with characters driven by values that feel very much of their time. It explores Rosmer’s – and Ibsen’s – notion of nobility, referring to an elevated morality of character, mind and will rather than class – although it still carries the whiff of elitism. It is also a time when women have no vote and are considered inferior, which inspired one of Ibsen’s most remarkable characters, Rebecca West – a proto-feminist whose revolutionary views have triggered her friend Rosmer’s transformation from reactionary patrician to a champion of social equality.
Set against her is the conservative Kroll, here promoted by Macmillan from a local schoolmaster to a right-wing governor, an apparently cold-hearted politician who is careless about who he harms for the sake of getting his party into power. He is also the brother of Rosmer’s late wife, Beth, who threw herself into the millpond beside their home after discovering she could not give her husband an heir. It is these personal relationships that make this more than just a political drama. Neither is it just a portrayal of right versus left, with the focus on Rosmer’s inability to pick a side.
He is played with intensity by Tom Burke, giving him a buttoned-up seriousness that erupts with passion as he wrestles with his inner conflicts and loss of faith. But Hayley Atwell shines as Rebecca, fully embodying her struggle between idealistic beliefs and love for Rosmer. Despite disdain for equality and the working classes, Kroll is more than a right-wing villain thanks to Giles Terera who conveys the sense of a man terrified of change and social unrest.
With walls crowded with portraits of two centuries of Rosmers, Rae Smith’s set emphasises how all the characters are haunted by the past – as they often are in Ibsen’s plays. While some of their actions and motivations feel a little alien to the 21st century, director Ian Rickson makes their conflicts feel real and pertinent, with a tragic inevitability reflected in Stephen Warbeck’s haunting music. Rosmersholm is one of Ibsen’s least performed plays but, with Macmillan’s adaptation, it now feels one of the most topical.
Mark Ludmon has been a journalist for over 20 years, specialising in writing about theatre and the arts as well as bars, pubs and drink. He has been on the theatre judging panel for London’s Olivier Awards and has a masters degree in English literature, specialising in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. He is doing an MA in theatre research at the University of London’s Royal Central School of Speech & Drama. You can find him tweeting about theatre as @MarkLudmon