“Terera has a magnificent presence between the glib walls of Rosmersholm”
This timely revival of one of Ibsen’s least performed plays is an astonishing study of moral guilt, political struggle and the omnipresence of the past. Reminiscent of his earlier work ‘Ghosts’, this shows Ibsen at his dark and daring best. Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation of Karin and Anne Bamborough’s literal translation delivers Ibsen into the twenty-first century, creating a witty, if not a little wordy, drama for our times.
Weighed down by the memory of his dead wife, John Rosmer (Tom Burke) shares his vast estate with a “liberated woman” in the form of Rececca West (Hayley Atwell), his former wife’s former friend. Rosmer’s brother-in-law Andreas Kroll (a superbly on-form Giles Terera) has political aspirations, but his call for support is radically rebuffed as Rosmer turns his attention to the progressive politics of Peter Mortensgaard (Jake Fairbrother). Invoking concepts such as representational democracy and ‘the will of the people’, MacMillan makes sure this play speaks to the current climate, and some knowing chuckles from the audience suggested this relevance did not go unnoticed. Kroll is a fascinating figure, charmingly aristocratic yet stubbornly conservative, and Terera has a magnificent presence between the glib walls of Rosmersholm.
At the heart of the drama though is Rosmer and West’s relationship: can they break free of the past and learn to love each other? Rae Smith’s stunningly decrepit design makes it seem unavoidable. Portraits of the Rosmer family cover every wall, a constant reminder to John of his family’s legacy. Neil Austin’s lighting is similarly evocative, with striking shafts of light breaking through the dusty windows to expose the age and dereliction of this once great home.
Ian Rickson’s production will please West End crowds looking for a timely reminder that politics runs in circle. Rosmer and West struggle to forget the past – are we too quick to? Although I’m no fan of weighty naturalism, with a gorgeous set and memorable performances, this production has plenty to offer.
“Ibsen’s work is full of discomfort and awkwardness, of course, but in order for the audience to feel it, the actors need to have an inner freedom and confidence on stage which is sadly lacking here”
The Lady from the Sea tells the story of Ellida, taken as a second wife by Wangel after the death of his first, and uprooted from her upbringing as a lighthouse-keeper’s daughter to live with him and his two daughters in a small town, away from the open sea. In common with Ibsen’s other work, the play is full of ghosts from the past – of Wangel’s first wife, of Ellida and Wangel’s dead infant son, and of Ellida’s mysterious seafaring lover, who eventually appears to try to claim her. In keeping with the other great theme running through the plays, Ellida and the two girls all yearn for freedom and self-determination, and struggle against the various stifling forces ranged against them. It is unusual in one respect however: in that, although the future for Wangel’s girls remains unclear, Ellida, at the play’s close, has exorcised her demons and come to a place of health, peace and inner freedom, in such a way that she is able to remain with her husband and they can begin truly to love one another, in a way that had previously been impossible.
This production is the second collaboration with Kåre Conradi, Artistic Director of The Norwegian Ibsen Company, and the first in which the cast speak in both English and Norwegian (the last, Little Eyolf, was entirely in Norwegian). The bilingual aspect is deftly handled, and, for the most part, the surtitles projected on to the backdrop work well and are strangely unintrusive. What is noticeable however, is that the company’s leading lady, Pia Tjelta, has a physical and vocal freedom in her native language which leave her when she is acting in English. This is perhaps understandable, but unfortunately, with the notable exception of Adrian Rawlins – wonderfully believable as the beleaguered Wangel – all the other actors in this production seem physically uncomfortable throughout, and totally disconnected from the truth of the material. This has the unfortunate effect of steering many of the play’s more intense moments into near farce. Ibsen’s work is full of discomfort and awkwardness, of course, but in order for the audience to feel it, the actors need to have an inner freedom and confidence on stage which is sadly lacking here. Similarly, vocal delivery is frequently stilted and mannered, and the characters’ actions on stage too often showed a directorial desire for a pleasing stage picture rather than stemming from the intent of the characters themselves.
Nils Petter Molvær’s stunning original music featured in strong underscoring throughout, but too often was entirely responsible for generating atmosphere that was lacking on stage. And despite his best efforts, and the highly charged nature of the script, this production remained at a distance from the mercurial and turbulent sea at its heart.