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By Henrik Ibsen, a new adaptation by Duncan Macmillan
Duke of York’s Theatre, London, until July 20
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Duncan Macmillan’s crisp new adaptation of this unjustly neglected Ibsen play is a triumph in all departments and makes one wonder why it isn’t revived more often. The central themes could be torn from today’s headlines: an election looming, a country on the brink, a rabid press baying for blood. At the center of it is Rosmersholm, the grand house of the influential Rosmer dynasty, whose current head Jon Rosmer (Tom Burke), is a young pastor who has lost his faith. He is torn by an idealized hope for the future and the ghosts of his past.
His grand status is perfectly rendered from the outset here by director Ian Rickson aided by Rae Smith’s exquisite set and Neil Austin’s superlative lighting, which take us from Nordic impressionism to naturalistic gloom. It’s been a year since Rosmer’s wife Beate’s suicide and his new companion Rebecca West (yes, the famous writer took her nom de plume from this character) has decided to open up Beate’s room, calling it a mausoleum.
A flock of servants slowly remove the covers which shroud the grand furniture and the somber portraits of the ancestors. Flowers and light are reintroduced but this does little to lift the spirits of Rosmer (Tom Burke) who appears physically knotted with liberal guilt about his wealth and privilege. His thinking has been colored by Rebecca, an early feminist and ‘free thinker’. All this horrifies his society friends, in particular Dr Kroll (Giles Terera), who is trying to secure vital political endorsement in his newspapers from the influential Rosmer in the elections.
He’s also targeted by the radicals, who think they now have him in the bag, but then their champion Mortensgaard (Jake Fairbrother) blithely decides to drop him on finding out he’s lost his religion. They need that demographic, as it were. Ibsen’s contempt for these grubby machinations of party politics is clear, and watching this in the era of trolling and ‘gaslighting’ you realize nothing much has changed.
The old firebrand radical is represented by Ulrik Brendel, played in another scene-stealing performance by Peter Wight. Once an influential teacher of Rosmer he is now reduced to cadging food and clothes from anyone who will still give him a hearing.
Kroll wants to be rid of Rebecca and knows how to exploit weak spots so he attempts to blackmail her over an alleged incestuous relationship with her step father and mentor. Terera is brilliant, spitting out lines like “[the radicals] mistake vandalism for progress” and practically bursting a blood vessel with his self-righteousness.
Atwell too shines in a difficult part, bringing to it a mix of the steely and delicate. She’s trying to leverage Rosmer’s ability to be a leader but he’s adrift and Burke very adeptly portrays his ambivalence. She’s changed him but the traditions and stability of the great house have also changed her. “Are you following me or am I following you” he asks, which sums it up.
The piece is not without its shortcomings Act 2 gets bogged down in protracted conversations and it loses impetus but Rickson ends it with a wonderful coup de theatre. This is a pristine, intelligent, revival of a play that is anything but a museum piece.