A sunny afternoon is perhaps not the perfect time to see one of Ibsen’s more ponderous plays, but this tale of the morally oppressive house of Pastor Rosmer, the memory of his drowned wife, and the political machinations in the upcoming election has a lot of relevance to what’s happening in the UK right now.
Ian Rickson’s production finds the humour within the text and translation (by Duncan MacMillan) despite the constant feeling, quite rightly, that disaster is just around the corner. With perceptive comments about the power of the press to bring influence from good or bad, the play retains its power to connect.
John Rosmer (Tom Burke) has lost his faith and has been swayed to the political left, personified by disgraced Peter Mortensgaard (Jake Fairbrother) who was cast out for having a child with a married woman, and who now publishes the leftist newspaper The Lighthouse.
Governor Kroll (Giles Terera) whose dead sister had been married to Rosmer, represents the right-wing of politics, against any talk of equality and a strong upholder of what he sees is the decent way of living (marriage, children, the Church, sobriety). He reveres the ancestors of Rosmersholm, a set of unsmiling men depicted in portraits which line the walls of the large dining room in which we first find ourselves.
Into this house we also find Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell), who had been a friend to both the Rosmers, and who is a liberated, independent thinker with a shadowy past. In contrast to her is Mrs Helseth (Lucy Briers), long-time housekeeper, who gets her opinions from the traditional paper The Tribune, yet acknowledges that women “are all human”.
There is also an academic idealist, come to grief, in the person of Ulrik Brendel (Peter Wight), who turns up to Rosmersholm in rags, to call in favours from his former pupil and protege. His assumption that the people can think for themselves also comes to grief.
Rae Smith’s set is huge and oppressive, with cavernous space and triple height doors and windows, with Rosmer’s bedroom showing the spaces where his cross and (presumably) portrait of his dead wife once graced the wall.
At first the house is in darkness, furniture shrouded, dead flowers; then it opened up to represent something of the insight Rosmer thinks he has gained of the world.
When he tells his bewildered servants “I do not think I am better than you” and gives them fresh flowers to take back to their families, this is mainly received in silence, save one manservant who skips briefly on his way to the door.
The ending is bleak, and cleverly indicated as the stage floods with water as the mill wheel fails to keep the river moving. This is an important new reading of Rosmersholm, which deserves a bit more interest from audiences.