Ian Rickson directs the West End premiere of Duncan Macmillan’s new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1886 play, ‘Rosmersholm’.
Set one year after the suicide of his wife, John Rosmer is tormented by the ghosts of his past. With an election looming, John must cast off his moral guilt, and cast the deciding vote.
With a heavy focus on progress, liberation, radicalisation, equality, and significantly, nobility, this is a well balanced, finely tuned, deftly nuanced and intelligently crafted production, that strikes a harmonious chord between respectful comedy, and chilling truth, presenting politics for what it is: a blood sport.
Tom Burke is the painfully tormented John Rosmer, a former Pastor abandoned by his faith. Since his wife’s death, he has been in a state of intense grieving, forgetting how to live in the process. Once with a passion for social reform, his longing for liberation is overcome by the shadow of his wife’s suicide, and he is plagued by guilt, clinging to the dead. A “living example of compassion”, John does not consider himself to be above anybody else, referring to the circumstances of his privilege as simply an “accident of birth”. To him, Rosmersholm is just a house, and he does not associate himself with it, or ally himself to the traditional values of his forefathers, instead demonstrating flickering moments of passion for reform in favour of equality, a passion that predominately lies dormant, but not distinguished, since his wife’s suicide. A passion that Rebecca West works to reignite.
Hayley Atwell’s Rebecca West is a riveting heroine, fascinating to watch. A champion of free thought, the opinionated Rebecca speaks her mind. Ahead of her time, more relatable, perhaps, to women today, she follows politics, reads newspapers to keep up to date, and understand, the political climate, and exercises dominion over her thoughts, her body, and her future. A social reformist, some might say a radicalist, she first arrived at Rosmersholm with the sole purpose of using John as a pawn in her fight for emancipation, hoping to use his name, his reputation, his standing, as a cause for influence. It is this fight, this fire in her belly that, until she arrived, gave her life purpose, gave it meaning. On developing feelings for John, however, her mind was consumed by thoughts of him, so that no thought was free to continue with her cause. She grew content with the permanence, the history, even the tradition, of Rosmersholm. She believes love made her selfish, as her intentions to create a liberated future became lost to an overwhelming need – her need for John.
Giles Terera’s Andreas Kroll is a traditionalist, who sees Rosmersholm as the beating heart of the community. He has convinced himself of the benefits of inequality, believing that not everybody should have the right to vote, and that wealth and power should remain with those few best suited to govern. John’s brother-in-law, and a morally upright man, he is living in the past, loyal to tradition and history at the expense of positive and necessary reform. Convinced that ‘it’s nothing personal, it’s just politics’, he has dedicated his life to upholding the values that made his country great, clinging to the fundamental principles – the morality, values and faith – and unfortunately he is unable to see past this.
Peter Wight’s roughly charming Ulrik Brendel, former tutor to John, is now an exile, his clothes shabby and torn. The two appear to have been close friends, sharing values and ideals, Ulrik sparking a passion in John from a young age. He has written several books, all of which Rebecca has read and enjoyed, but now dismisses them as dreams, the incoherent ramblings of a man trying to process his thoughts, but who has since come to understand that words are a waste of time, and that action is key.
Jake Fairbrother’s Peter Mortensgaard is editor of ‘The Lighthouse’ newspaper, an ex-teacher publicly ostracized by John Rosmer for having an affair with a married woman (unable to divorce her husband). Their affair saw a child born, Thomas, who died at the age of 4, his mother killing herself shortly afterwards. This personal tragedy fuels the paper, a paper founded on angry and divisive rhetoric, but one with a pure aim – that is, that everybody should have an equal opportunity to thrive.
The production highlights the power of the media in its portrayal of left-wing ‘The Lighthouse’ and right-wing ‘The Tribune’, their opposing views dividing the radicalists and the traditionalists. With their teams of researchers, both papers are ready to uncover damaging truths as they publicly denounce a person who refuses to endorse their message, with John subject to being called “deserter”, “traitor”, “damned” and “Judas”. We are also warned of the increasing ability of the media to influence us, to manipulate our thoughts and feelings, proving the necessity of becoming familiar with all sides, and making a decision using our own conscience.
Rosmersholm is established as a “symbol of propriety and order”, one that remains constant, stable and secure, throughout periods of great change, political or otherwise. Now in a state of decay, its windows are boarded up, with only a little light seeping through the cracks, and furniture and family portraits – portraits of John’s forefathers, who led the community for over 200 years, sitting in constant judgement from their elevated positions on the walls – are covered over with cloth. As the country is on the verge of collapse, the foundations of society shaken to the point of permanent destruction, the house appears as a fitting setting, itself a pitiful demonstration of permanent destruction, its decay mirroring the decaying of the established world order, as it slips into darkness. Shut off since Beth died, more resembling a mausoleum than a reception room, Rebecca orders that a room be set for dinner. Furniture and portraits are uncovered, window boards are removed, the table is set and flowers are brought in, as life and light are reintroduced to Rosmersholm once more.
Beth Rosmer killed herself by jumping off the bridge on a footpath, into a mill race, where she drowned. Her body prevented the water wheel from turning, and Rosmersholm was flooded. The mill race is a frequent source of sound in the production, its rhythmic, pulsating beat a form of constancy, one that almost becomes reassuring. It turns out that wood from the mill race was used to build houses, the very foundations, of the community, for which it is now the beating heart. When it stops turning, there is silence, and the progress these great wheels of change mirror is halted, with the death of a character.
Housekeeper Mrs Helseth tells of a White Horse, that became visible at the time of the death of John’s father, his mother, and Beth. She believes the horse to be a symbol of death, a macabre apparition that foreshadows tragedy. In Christianity, the white horse does indeed symbol death. In popular culture, however, it is also associated with freedom without restraint. Rebecca declares this white horse to be a symbol of change. Of course, with death, often comes great change. ‘White horses’ is a term given to the breaking of waves, and this production, with all its imagery relating to water, flooding and drowning, evokes an image of these white horses, like powerful waves, galloping across a socio-political landscape, crashing down upon the established world order, washing clean the corruption, impurity and hypocrisy therein.
A powerful, pertinent, passionate personal and political drama, ‘Rosmersholm’ highlights the unforgivable truths of a fallen world, a world where privilege warps a sense of reality.
A seismic production, electrifyingly ennobling, an Ibsen for our times, this play flies far above the chaos of the moment, and into the clarity of the future. A future promising that “a great change is coming. Rights for all. For ALL!”.
A beacon of hope that sets the world on fire, ‘Rosmersholm’ is a step on the footpath to equality.