Few plays could be more timely than Henrik Ibsen's Rosmersholm which, although written over 130 years ago, still resonates today. This rarely revived drama returns to the West End (Duke of York's Theatre) in a new production, directed by Ian Rickson.
The action is set in the grand mansion of the recently widowed John Rosmer, an idealistic ex-clergyman, whose wife Beate, tormented by her childless marriage, drowned herself in the nearby river, leaving Rosmer to crippling guilt, as well as the possibility of a relationship with Rebecca West. She entered the household as carer to Rosmer's ailing wife and now wants to open up the grand house, removing the shrouds from the pictures and filling the space with light. The pastor's personal anxieties are matched by political ones. On the eve of an election the local press is baying for blood. One newspaper is intent on stirring up social unrest. Its main rival is owned by Beate's brother, Dr. Kroll, who hopes to halt the rise of the Left and is dismayed to find Rosmer embracing progressive ideas. But if West can persuade Rosmer to stand up for his beliefs, change my be in the wind that blows through this dark house's drawing room.
This is a play which is difficult to get right–full of protracted conversations and scenes verging on melodrama. But in this sterling, expertly paced version by Duncan Macmillan, the drama takes flight. Indeed it is as if Ibsen is writing about 21st century Britain and not chauvinistic 19th-century Norway, in its sense of the ugly ambition and wild hypocrisy that can thrive at a time of political crisis.
Rae Smith's impressive deign realistically evokes this grand house that stands as a metaphor for the mental struggles of the characters.
But it is the smouldering performances by the two leads that really set the play alight. Tom Burke broods darkly as the wavering Rosmer, consumed by guilt and submerged desire, ill at ease with the privilege he's inherited. However it is Hayley Atwell, a mix of refinement and ruthlessness, who truly mesmerises as the firebrand Rebecca West, unafraid of challenging the male-dominated politics and pomposity of the time. Giles Terera is excellent as Rosmer's aggressive, judgmental brother-in-law Dr. Kroll.
This, then, is a play which was way ahead of its time, a piercingly relevant work of personal and political passion, ambitious, complex and dramatically compelling. It might now in our troubled, searching times have found its right moment.
Runs until Saturday 20 July at Duke of York's Theatre.
Box office: 0844 871 7623.
Photography: Johan Persson.Last modified: April 6, 2021