Review – Rosmersholm, Duke of York’s Theatre

Friday 10 May 2019

Cor. A rarely performed piece of Ibsen gloom which has been dumped straight into the West End without the usual slew of raves from a previous incarnation at an Almeida or a Royal Court to ignite a buzz. And, come to that, no really big name draws like a Dench or a Smith (that’s Maggie not Sheridan) let alone a Waller-Bridge to get those box office tills overheating.

But then this comes from that spunkiest of producers, Sonia Friedman, who rarely seems to put a foot wrong. Just as well really with this tightrope she’s strung herself across St Martin’s Lane. Thank goodness for her Harry Potter safety net.

This production of Rosmerholm claims to be a new adaptation by Duncan Macmillan but we think it’s actually been given a light fingering by Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna.

The elephant in the huge, decaying room which needs-more-than-a-lick-of-Farrow-and-Ball in the once grand manor house of Rosmersholm (wonderfully spacious design and moody lighting from Rae Smith and Neil Austin respectively) is, ho hum, Brexit.

Yes, if you thought you could avoid it by opting for a night of intense Ibsen misery think again. Either someone has shoehorned some gloriously unsubtle ‘B’ word allusions (“You see, this is what happens when the general public becomes engaged in politics – they get duped into voting against their own interests.”) by tweaking the text to add a few knowing audience chuckles or someone has unearthed a terribly timely and prescient piece of work. Discuss.

There’s an election round the corner. Ex-pastor, John Rosmer (Tom Burke) is eschewing his traditional roots and flirting with being a bit of an intense beardy lefty. Let’s glue ourselves to his gates now. Rosmer’s wife Beate committed suicide in the mill stream a year ago and Beate’s conservative brother Dr Kroll (Giles Hamilton Terera) is prone to drop in and stir things up over a light lunch of “fermented mackerel”. The fish, since you ask, was performed by what looked suspiciously like smoked salmon at the performance we attended. Mind you the air in Rosmerholm is rancid enough, you don’t want to add a whiff of rotting fish and have that lurking around after your mid-week matinees do you?

Beate’s old friend, the free-thinking Rebecca West* (Hayley Atwell), lives in the house too, lurking around inflicting her own ideas on him and seems to have a bit of a thing for Rosmer. How ironic that the person who has a chance to be the second Mrs Rosmer – after the first, unseen, wife ends up in a watery grave – is called Rebecca. Without giving too much away you kinda know things aren’t going to end with a chirpy song and dance knees-up.

If it all sounds a bit heavy, well, it is. And there’s an awful lot of yakking and anxious staring out of the dirt-flecked windows towards the stream in which Beate ended up. Plus so many allusions to symbolic “white horses” that Phil hoped we might be treated to the Jackie Lee theme tune. But director Ian Rickson somehow injects a pacy urgency into things that means the dust never fully settles. Terera is particularly charismatic and dynamic whilst Atwell is splendidly troubled and comes with a melodramatic, gasp-worthy Act 2 revelation. Broody Burke, who is prone to mumbling on TV, is, like the rest of the cast, as clear as a bell. Send the cast of All My Sons round to see this now and show them how to deliver an intense performance whilst still till being fully audible.

Very comfortable support comes in the shape of that inveterate scene-stealer Peter Wight who appears relatively briefly in Act 1 and even more fleetingly in Act 2 adding a few laughs as Rosmer’s childhood tutor while Lucy Briers‘ housekeeper provides a very decent turn and more than a passing resemblance to Bette Davis. Very agreeable.

All things considered it’s a pretty nippy 2 hours 20 minutes and assuming you stay the course you’ll be rewarded with a rather effective coup de théâtre in the closing moments.

*Footnote: Apparently Cicily Isabel Fairfield pinched the name from this play and became the (Dame) Rebecca West we all know.



2 Responses to “Review – Rosmersholm, Duke of York’s Theatre”

  1. Michael Darby Says:

    It was wonderful to see a “classic” which had not been vandalised by some twenty year old director determined to leave a nasty stain on theatre history. Thank you thank you thank you!

  2. Sandown Says:

    “Rosmersholm” is one of Ibsen’s realistic plays. In this production, the character of Professor Kroll is cast as being of African descent. His sister Beate (formerly married to Rosmer, now dead) must also have been of African descent.

    Strange that Ibsen never mentions this in the original text. One learns something new every day in our “woke” theatre.

    Let’s hope this isn’t going to be another case of: “Get woke –go broke.”

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