FringeReview UK 2019
Ian Rickson’s revival of Rosmersholm is designed by Rae Smith, lit by Neil Austin with Stephen Warbeck’s music and sound design by Gregory Clarke.
Shabby old tutor Ulrik Brendel thinks he’s ahead of the lurch leftwards in society. ’I intended to set the world on fire but have returned to find…. The ruling class is combusting… I was arguing with those lunatics long before it was fashionable.’ An election’s brewing: the left might win.
Plus ca change then. Brendel’s returned to see his old pupil, head of the local community Rosmer: instead Brendel addresses his foe, Councillor Kroll, reactionary brother of Rosmer’s late wife. They’re fighting for possession of this social pillar in his own house, Rosmersholm. So is left-wing newspaperman Peter Mortensgaard. And so is Rosmer’s feminist lodger, companion to his late wife Beth: Rebecca West.
Ian Rickson’s revival of Ibsen’s 1886 Rosmersholm is more than timely in Duncan Macmillan’s fluid, explicit translation: Macmillan makes overt what Ibsen hints at. Though many think it Ibsen’s masterpiece it’s rarely on stage. The last time was at the Almeida a decade ago. This very interior piece stands just before the happier Lady From the Sea and the later more visionary masterpieces. And it comes after A Doll’s House with its wife’s bid for freedom, Ghosts with transmitted guilt and disease, An Enemy of the People about political rectitude, and The Wild Duck, with its notions of sacrifice and a stranger’s disruption of the home.
Rosmersholm distils all that, centring on the lynchpin of society: if he’s pulled the community falls in. It doesn’t help that as a pastor he’s quit because he lost his faith when his wife died. Hayley Atwell’s disrupter Rebecca West commands everything in a locked room to flourish at her hand. Covered portraits of Rosmer’s ancestors fly off, dust-sheets uncover furniture in a tide-marked room locked for a year after its mistress’ death. Mourning’s over and West is vivid for life, whatever Lucy Briers’ housekeeper Mrs Helsteth mutters. It’s a gimleted, watchful performance, like being at the centre of a centrifuge as everything else flies off.
Helsteth’s fearful of the past’s claims, seeing white horses like the time Mrs Rosmer drowned herself in the millwheel, clogging it so the house is flooded. Anyone who’s experienced recent floodings will know the unerring accuracy of tidemarks and grubbiness that never leaves. West though is passionate to live, love and as a new woman push Rosmer further left.
Tom Burke’s Rosmer enjoys a distinctive side-of-mouth- talking and looking obliquely, as if side-on to life, skewed by his wife’s death partly because she couldn’t have children, and his disgust ‘the demands she made of me. It was as if she could eat me whole’ and you feel immensely sorry for the late Mrs Rosmer. You also wonder what on earth West feels she can awake. Burke’s smouldering Rosmer is freighted with guilt, silted with remorse and longing. ‘I want my God back’ and that personal pronoun releases the primal self-fixated inability to shift. Flinging flowers at servants, in a futile gesture of solidarity you realize he’s as stuck and Janus-faced as Hedda Gabler. West is his sole salvation, but each can drop as each other’s millstones.
What Atwell brings so mesmerically to West is convincing you this man’s worth saving and herself too: a smouldering passion for life and a final breakout admission her desire is every bit as primal as Rosmer’s late wife’s, not necessarily connected to children. ‘I sweated… I was ready for you’ clearly heightened in Macmillan’s translation from the original. These aren’t the shuddering pair sometimes made of them. They might seem occasionally understated, but – tellingly – they move as if underwater.
Designed by Rae Smith, the set’s a single tide-marked peeling room in eggshell green that at one point with a false wall reduces to a bedroom. There’s one spectacular effect of water rising again – as it does when the millwheel outside is clogged with an obstruction. It’s spectacular. With an extraordinary scene as water floods across the floor gathering the flowers Rosmer scatters. It’s lit by Neil Austin with a flood of day, tenebrous evenings and dark banished. Stephen Warbeck’s music and sound design by Gregory Clarke seem to breathe with the set.
Though it’s the chemistry between Atwell and Burke that powers the play, the other characters’ agencies propel them. Peter Wight’s Ulrik Brendel is shabbily memorable as the old tutor who in appearing twice lays a benediction to radicalism, a seed long planted now bearing a bitter fruit. It’s a skirl of a performance, humorous (he’s always cadging) and dark – he’s quite clear he hasn’t much longer, after his lecture failed to attract even the left.
That should mean Jake Fairbrother’s memorably chilling Peter Mortensgaard is welcome – summoned by the ambitious West. Arriving just once he now discovers that Rosmer whose support he’s courting might be the subject of scandal and on a turn of an editorial page disowns him because he’s to be denounced for losing his faith by Kroll’s Tribune right. They don’t need another atheist, they value him because he’s Christian establishment. Fairbrother relishes Mortensgaard’s reptilian: ‘The Left must distance itself from you… It’s nothing personal, Mr Rosmer, it’s politics.’
West’s and Rosmer’s main opposition predictably comes from Giles Terera’s Andreas Kroll. It’s not simply the way Terera turns inexorably like a grand inquisitor on Rosmer, but on his forensic revelation to West things about her past and guardian Dr West that suddenly flay her. It’s as if he’s removed a skin and Atwell shrivels in horror and self-loathing. Terera and Atwell in this scene are transfixing. It’s one of the great terrible moments of invisible destruction.
One of the production’s triumphs is the ensemble of servants who cluster like ghosts or auditors as Rosmer addresses them as would-be equals or overhearers: like Walter De La Mare’s ‘The Listeners’ to a doomed race. Gavin Antony, Ebony Buckle, Piers Hampton, Maureen Hibbert, Robyn Lovell and Alice Vilanculo occasionally fly up into a chip of cameo: it’s their collective weight that shows what the political struggle’s about. They’re tardy inheritors.
Themes in this play rise like those tidemarks. They marble monumental characters who simmer with an inner death striped with a superficial dash for life. Not the wildest pair this play has inspired, Atwell and Burke remain truest to their characters for a long time. They compel attention, they demand we follow every sigh and read its subtext. Everything else is outstanding.