Reform And Tradition Clash In Ibsen’s Rosmersholm

Rosmersholm, Duke of York’s Theatre ★★★★☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 12 months ago

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Reform And Tradition Clash In Ibsen’s Rosmersholm Rosmersholm, Duke of York’s Theatre 4
Photo: Johan Persson

Rosmersholm may be one of Henrik Ibsen’s lesser-performed mature plays, but it is one of the most fascinating. Like Ghosts, it portrays people haunted by guilt, secrets and traumatic events in the past, and like An Enemy of the People, it shows the pressures to conform to a conservative community and the costs of advancing radical ideas. Duncan Macmillan’s lucid, streamlined new version makes the play’s complex themes accessible.

Photo: Johan Persson

The drama revolves around John Rosmer, owner of a grand manor house and a former pastor who has lost his faith after his wife Beata drowned herself in the watermill a year ago. He shares an unacknowledged love with Beata’s free-thinking companion Rebecca West who has carried on living at Rosmersholm while influencing him with her radical views. As a crucial election looms, Rosmer’s reactionary brother-in-law Andreas Kroll visits to enlist his support against the reformist party.

Photo: Johan Persson

Though politically progressive himself, Ibsen is far from polemical as he creates rounded, ambivalent characters who struggle to embrace social change while weighed down by personal baggage. The play also raises issues around feminism and the misuse of power by the press. Ian Rickson’s excellent production pulses with passion without losing subtlety. Rae Smith’s imposing chamber — initially with its windows shuttered and furniture shrouded until Rebecca opens it up — has ancestral portraits staring down forbiddingly.

Photo: Johan Persson

Tom Burke gives a strong performance as the tortured idealist Rosmer who strives to break free from his family inheritance. Hayley Atwell makes a big impact as the ardent, free-spirited Rebecca, a breath of fresh air in the suffocating atmosphere of 19th century patriarchal Norway. And Giles Terera gives the pompously moralising Kroll more sensitivity than usual — and even gets some laughs amidst the gloom and doom.

Rosmersholm, Duke of York’s Theatre, 85-88 St Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4BG. Tickets £15–£90, until 6 July 2019.

Last Updated 08 May 2019