Rosmersholm – June 2008

8/10

By Henrik Ibsen, in a version by Mike Poulton

Directed by Anthony Page

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 14th June 2008

The set was a drawing room, with scruffy walls in depressing shades of blue, a window to our left, a stained mirror, portraits on the walls, nice formal furniture, and a white tiled stove in an angled recess. There was an attractive bowl of flowers on the table, otherwise it was as austere and gloomy as an Ibsen play. (So the designer’s done a good job, then.)

The second act has the same window and stove, but the rear wall is further forward, the furniture is more relaxed, and there are bookcases and no portraits. This was the private sitting room/study off Rosmer’s bedroom. The final scenes revert back to the first set, and all the action takes place over three days.

Rosmer is one of Ibsen’s naïve, idealistic heroes. His wife committed suicide a year ago, and he is just starting to get involved again in the life of Rosmersholm, the town his family have effectively ruled over for a couple of centuries. He’s been helped by a woman, Rebecca West, who was originally nursing his wife through her illness, and who’s stayed on in order to assist Rosmer to find his true vocation. It appears nothing improper has happened, but the situation leads to rumours, and while Rosmer remains a pillar of the community they’re unlikely to affect him much. However, as he’s not only stopped being a priest but renounced his religious beliefs as well, he finds himself friendless and vulnerable to gossip and suspicion. He’s keen to support the movement for change that was surfacing in Norway at that time, and Rebecca’s support for this has been a key factor in his recovery from his wife’ suicide. Various revelations through the play make past events fairly clear to us, although the possibility of incest in Rebecca’s past is left as a suggestion only, and the final choice of the unconsummated lovers is as downbeat as one might expect from Ibsen.

The other characters are interesting. Rebecca West herself is less likeable than Ibsen’s usual women – Strindberg would have approved. She represents the kind of free-thinking women that must have been coming out of the kitchen closet at that time, but here she’s not necessarily a force for good. It’s interesting that this character has the same name as the famous writer, although the play was written six years before the real person was born.

The doctor, Kroll (very close to troll?), represents the absolutist establishment view. He’s for God, King, country and keeping the peasants in their place. His friendship with Rosmer appears to be based more on the Rosmer family’s status and his friend’s earlier traditional opinions than on any great affection for the man himself. He frequently tells Rosmer how gullible he is, and is only reconciled to him once the revelations make Rosmer ready to doubt his support for change. Malcolm Sinclair gave us a wonderfully detailed performance, with many good lines delivered impeccably.

Ulrik Brendel is Rosmer’s old tutor, currently a down and out but hoping to make it big now that the political tide has turned in his direction. He talks big, but there’s nothing behind it. It’s a fetching performance by Paul Moriarty, and allows us to see how easily Rosmer can be swayed, and how kind and generous he can be as well.

Mortensgaard is the editor of the left-wing paper, and his insights are very entertaining. At first delighted to find that Rosmer has given up the priesthood, he’s quite candid about his disappointment that Rosmer has left the church altogether. He wants people still in the church to come out in support of the new ideas, so that ordinary people will listen to them. Another atheist is no good to him, so he just won’t mention that part. It’s a useful part for showing us how impractical Rosmer’s idealism is. Sitting in his ivory tower, hatching plans with Rebecca to change people’s attitudes, he’s completely unaware of how opinions are influenced and shaped. He had hoped to stay above it all, a pure radiant beacon of light showing others a better way to live, and he’s sidelined so quickly he hardly has a chance to take it all in.

This leaves the maid, Mrs Helseth, a strict but kind Christian woman, prone to believing superstitions, such as the local one about a ghostly white horse presaging death. She shows us the ordinary people who still hold the church and its priests in high esteem; she still calls Rosmer ‘pastor’, though I assume she knows he’s defrocked himself. Her view of events on the fatal footbridge gives us the ending of the play.

I felt this was a very good production of an interesting play. I enjoyed the arguments and the insight into the upheaval that Norway was going through at that time. The program notes identified this play as the crossover point between the external threats in Ibsen’s plays (An Enemy of the People), and the interior conflicts (Doll’s House). I’d agree with that, and that’s part of what made it so interesting for me.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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