REVIEW: Rosmersholm, Duke Of York’s Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Mark Ludmon reviews Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm now playing at the Duke Of York’s Theatre.

Rosmersholm review Duke Of York's Theatre
Lucy Briers, Giles Terera, Hayley Atwell and Company of Rosmersholm. Photo: Johan Persson
Rosmersholm
Five stars
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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”.
Rosmersholm tickets Duke Of York's Theatre London
Hayley Atwell and Company in Rosmersholm. Photo: Johan Persson
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.
Rosmersholm Giles Terera
Giles Terera and Hayley Atwell in Rosmersholm. Photo: Johan Persson
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.
Rosmersholm Duke Of York's Theatre
Hayley Atwell, Tom Burke, Peter Wight and Giles Terera in Rosmersholm. Photo: Johan Persson
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.
Running to 20 July 2019

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