'Rosmersholm': Theater Review

Rosmersholm-Production still 1-H 2019
Johan Persson
Visually ravishing, dramatically dreary.

Marvel star Hayley Atwell plays the protofeminist heroine, appearing opposite Tom Burke in Ibsen's rarely revived Scandi Noir psychodrama.

A rare revival of one of Ibsen’s lesser plays, Ian Rickson's production of Rosmersholm is a thing of painterly beauty to behold, but also something of a starchy endurance test to sit through. Published in 1886, between The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler, this minor autumnal work feels like a mixtape of familiar Ibsen motifs: buried family secrets, illegitimate children, proto-suffragette heroines trapped in the wrong century, fin-de-siècle angst about declining religious faith and rising social equality. There are juicy dramatic undercurrents here, but Rickson struggles to tease them out in this staid Masterpiece Theater production.

Rosmersholm has long had its famous admirers, from Sigmund Freud to J.K. Rowling. But despite a new adaptation by Duncan Macmillan, best known for his bold reworking of George Orwell’s 1984 and prize-winning addiction drama People, Places & Things, Ibsen’s fusty state-of-the-nation sermon on late 19th century Norway never fully comes alive here. A lively lead performance by Hayley Atwell, aka Agent Peggy Carter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, alongside rising British star Tom Burke (recently seen in the acclaimed Sundance premiere The Souvenir), should help boost ticket sales. But Rosmersholm is ultimately a second-tier Ibsen play that demands a more adventurous, less reverential treatment than this to shine in 2019.

John Rosmer (Burke) is an aristocratic widower and retired pastor, brooding away in the grand house that gives the play its name, a crumbling family mansion at the heart of a remote mill town. Haunted by the unsolved riddle of his mentally fragile wife’s suicide a year before, Rosmer still refuses to cross the footbridge where she jumped to her watery death. With local elections looming, Rosmer's valuable patronage is also being courted by two bitter political enemies — conservative newspaper owner Kroll (London Hamilton production veteran Giles Terera) and radical firebrand publisher Mortensgaard (Jake Fairbrother), whose leftist polemics have stirred revolutionary unrest among the town's workers.

Also resident at Rosmersholm is Rebecca West (Atwell), a liberated young woman who has gradually lured Rosmer away from his traditionalist views, leading him to ditch his Christian faith and take up the cause of equal rights for women and the working class. The couple’s relationship is platonic, but with a latent sexual and romantic subtext that eventually breaks cover, with mostly destructive effect. A small army of servants also haunt this chilly domestic landscape, ruled by all-seeing housekeeper Mrs Helseth (Lucy Briers), who chiefly serves as wise chorus figure.

As one of Ibsen's rarely staged plays, Rosmersholm has the advantage of unfamiliarity and curiosity value. But its scrappy production history also offers a cautionary hint that the text resonates less forcefully with subsequent generations than the likes of Ghosts or A Doll’s House. Rickson and Macmillan gently accent some contemporary themes including the scourge of fake news, feminist challenges to patriarchy and the vulgar spectacle of politics reduced to a binary shouting match. “Elections used to be won by those who spoke with the most sense, not the most volume,” Kroll laments.

But behind these superficially timely touches, Ibsen’s key concerns — the need for even-handed “nobility” in public affairs, long-winded ruminations on the correct balance between tradition and modernity, hand-wringing anguish about whether morality will survive in a godless post-Nietzsche age — all seem arcane and antiquated today. Rosmersholm feels more like a museum piece than most of the playwright’s canonical works.

Disappointingly, Rickson makes little effort to reimagine the drama in an engagingly modern manner. Macmillan’s textual tweaks are fairly minor, anglicizing character names and slightly amplifying Rebecca’s free-thinking feminist side. The mise-en-scène is strangely inert, mostly consisting of the main players delivering long slabs of monologue at each other in a declamatory style that often strains for a heightened emotional effect it cannot deliver. Burke’s mannered performance and unlocatable accent hardly help, making Rosmer more of a shifty, pompous bore than perhaps Ibsen or Rickson intended.

In theory, Rosmersholm is rich in Nordic Noir potential. The story features ghostly apparitions, untimely deaths, lethal betrayals, scandalous gossip and rowdy revolutionary mobs. Sadly, Rickson plays it safe by keeping all these events offstage. Juicy subplots relating to Rosmer’s sexual repression and West’s apparently incestuous family history, which drew Freud to the play, are also oddly underplayed. Rickson’s fidelity to Ibsen’s prim sense of understatement is commendable but overly respectful to 19th century prudery.

The largely naturalistic, period-accurate staging adds to this overall air of middlebrow Downton Abbey tastefulness. With sparing use of music and sound design, and minimal visual effects, Rickson’s production feels unusually conventional for the modern West End. A symbolic stunt in the final moments of the play (no spoilers) is technically dazzling, but too little, too late. More of these flourishes throughout the two-hours-plus runtime might have animated Ibsen’s political and psychological concerns more effectively.

Rosmersholm scores most highly as a visual spectacle. Rae Smith's grand set design, a cavernous mansion interior in a state of poetic decay, is an arrestingly beautiful stand-alone artwork, a living Vermeer painting superbly illuminated by Neil Austin with shafts of artificial sunlight. Also impressive are Smith's costumes, an exquisite vintage catwalk show of luscious creams, marine blues and muted earth tones. Of the main performers, Atwell and Terera both find humane depths in elusive, calculating characters whom Ibsen himself treats with shifting sympathy. High-caliber ingredients in a so-so play that does not quite deserve them.

Venue: Duke of York’s Theatre, London
Cast: Hayley Attwell, Tom Burke, Giles Terera, Jake Fairbrother, Lucy Briers, Peter Wight
Director: Ian Rickson
Playwright: Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Duncan Macmillan
Set and costume designer: Rae Smith

Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Sound designer: Gregory Clarke
Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions