Henrik Ibsen, Rosmerholm (directed by Ian Rickson, Duke of York’s Theatre)
I thought I’d never seen any Henrik Ibsen — aside from The Master Builder and perhaps Ghosts on the telly — but I did teach A Doll’s House twenty years ago. Rosemerholm (1886) is quite a late play, but I’ll avoid saying much more until I’ve read the whole play — and I’ll discuss that in a less spoiler-free blogpost.
As I’ve not read the play, I can’t say how much Duncan Macmillan’s translation jazzes things up — Ibsen’s play was written a couple of years after some men got the vote in Norway, then part of Sweden, and Johan Sverdrup had been appointed prime minister by King Oscar II in 1884, but we inevitably read it in the context of Brexit and the political divisions it has both highlighted and sewn. It is a political play — but also a melodrama and sort of a ghost story.
We are watching the play, of course, and the Pastor John Rosmer (Tom Burke) who has lost his faith and his wife, Beth, and Governor Kroll (Giles Terera) his brother-in-law and newspaper owner who wishes to recruit him to the conservative political campaign. And we watch Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell), former nurse to Beth and now a household guest, who we suspect maybe be teetering on the edge of an affair with Rosmer and who is goading him to more radical action.
But all of them are being watched by the paintings of the previous generations of Rosmers, who line the wall, and affect a malign influence on Rosmer, who has become disillusioned with his social roles and the demands it puts on him. He has failed to have a child and indeed seems to be less of a sexual being than his late wife — which makes an affair seem odder. Or perhaps he married because it was his duty and there was never any desire. Perhaps that explains his guilt.
And they are also watched by the servants, who listen at doorways and frequently need to be sent away. Above all, there’s the housekeeper, Mrs Helseth (Lucy Briers), suspicious about the visions of white horses the locals have when a death is being foreshadowed, who might fit into Rebecca and many another gothic novel. She has the keys, and tells us “Rosmer children never cry, the adults never laugh”. The other servants barely speak — effectively they are stagehands — but they don’t have the vote and are ready to be radicalised by newspaper editor Peter Mortensgaard (Jake Fairbrother) and Rosmer’s former tutor Ulrik Brendel (Peter Wight).
So there is a battle for Rosmer’s soul — if he indeed has one — as Kroll increasingly fears that Rosmer is being led astray by West. In this, he may be right, and the digging that he has done into her past means that he is also rejected by Mortensgaard as soiled goods. Women are here to be mothers, wives and daughters — middle or upper class women at least — and West’s background seems to discredit her honour and thus Rosmer’s. We are slowly led to believe that she has wormed her way into the household to radicalise Rosmer — although Kroll also becomes less certain of who she really is. (I’ll say more in my other pieces.) But it seems an uncanny foreshadowing of tabloid manipulations and political gamesmanship.
So we are led to a powerful ending, although I’m not quite sure I buy it, but it is the gothic ending, if you prefer your gothic bleak. I don’t think Tom Burke quite pulls off the role, but this is perhaps because he is called upon to be wet (and I had a whiff of Dylan Moran about him). Atwell is excellent despite the risk of her falling into historical cliche. She holds the stage and keeps you guessing. Wight, meanwhile, is almost comic, and Ibsen seems to have little obvious sympathy for the radical here (Fairbrother’s Mortensgaard is rather sinister and doesn’t really seem to care about the people). On the other hand, Kroll is a fool and seems to know it, ruthless but perhaps not to his core. He, too, is grieving.
So it feels and complex and shattering play, tempting me to more Ibsen (perhaps the deconstructed Doll’s House, as much diagnostic as curative.