The pursuit of great roles for women has driven much recent theatre discussion but relatively little action in the last two years, and despite the global impact of the #MeToo movement, male-centric dramas by male writers are still by far the norm. New works including The Writer and Dance Nation at the Almeida as well as the West End success of Nine Night, Emilia and Home, I’m Darling are gaining ground, putting diverse female stories centre stage. But revivals are just as vital to the continued success of the West End, which seem to limit the roles for women, but perhaps we’re just not commissioning the right plays.
Shakespeare may have left few truly great parts for women, but elsewhere the classical canon is full of substantial leading ladies, particularly in works written a hundred or so years ago when arguably the theatrical landscape was more progressive than it seems now. There has been renewed interest in late nineteenth and early-twentieth century dramatists at fringe theatres across London – D H Lawrence’s play The Daughter-in-Law was revived brilliantly at the Arcola last year, while the forgotten St John Ervine’s fascinating Jane Clegg is currently playing at the Finborough Theatre. Both wrote plenty of nuanced, self-sufficient women discovering a desire for freedom from the mores of marriage and family that set them on the path to a new kind of intellectual and spiritual emancipation. Chekhov and later Tennessee Williams also wrote complex, messy female characters that burn with all kinds of emotion, but it was Ibsen who truly mastered the female voice.
Many of Ibsen’s major plays focus on female self-discovery, on the stripping away of surface notions of politics, societal expectation and often their own personality delusions to achieve an undeniable awareness. The tragedy for these characters is being trapped in an era that prevents their easy escape from the artifice of their lives, the feet of clay and fear of scandal that crushes any hope of true liberation. The eponymous protagonist of Hedda Gabler, Nora in A Doll’s House even Helen Alving in Ghosts must all confront the reality they hide from and face the inevitable future that follows. In Rosmersholm, Ibsen created one of his greatest and most ambiguous heroines, leaving you wondering just who is Rebecca West?
This rarely seen drama, now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre, sits at an intriguing moment between old and new, the eve of an election which the occupants of Rosmersholm manor house hope will usher in a radical new era of equality and fairness. The play opens with a Spring-like freshness, as live-in companion Rebecca West orders the removal of the shutters and dust sheets from the room overlooking the mill that has remained unused since the suicide of Rosmer’s wife a year before. With Neil Austin’s lighting design sending beams of light through the reopened windows and Rae Smith dressing the set with baskets of freshly cut wild flowers, there is hope and opportunity for all kinds of new beginnings.
In Ian Rickson’s controlled production, that optimism barely lasts beyond dinner as former-Pastor Rosmer confesses to his brother-in-law the Governor that he has lost his faith and has been radicalised by Rebecca. Throughout the play there are references to different kinds of manipulation and the various interpretations of truth that Ibsen observes in society; both the radical newspaper and the traditional government seek the endorsement of the church to guarantee their victory, attempting to coerce Rosmer to their cause despite the clear abandonment of his faith and the open artlessness of his own character – the appearance of fact, Ibsen rather pointedly suggests, is enough to fool the public into believing it, a resonance not lost on a modern audience.
But there are also personal manipulations at play which eventually draws Rebecca into the spotlight. Ibsen is a very smart dramatist and while the viewer may want a conversation between her and Rosmer, Ibsen makes us wait until Act III for anything of substance, by which time we have been asked to consider the context of their lives, the nature of their involvement and, crucially, to view both of them as reasonable, decent people misunderstood by the outside world. What happens so brilliantly in the second half of this production is the slow unravelling of that certainty, leaving us to question how healthy their influence over each other is and, as Rebecca most crucially asks in the play’s final moments, “is it you that go with me, or I that go with you?”
As the story unfolds, what Rickson’s interpretation emphasises is the idea that the past and the future cannot be uncoupled, that whatever we are and want to be will always be connected to, and to some degree, held back by our heritage. The importance of Rosmersholm as a building in the community, as a rallying point, as a marker of stability as well as the value of the Rosmer family name is referenced many times, and while John Rosmer cares little for it at the start of the play, over the course of four acts the weight of that history, of living-up to the exploits of all those portraits on the wall starts to pull him back while a physical connection to the house itself also invades Rebecca’s certainty.
There are no half-measures with a Hayley Atwell performance, and as an actor she has a unique ability to convey truth, to inhabit her characters completely. There are so many layers to Rebecca West, and she has found them all without ever losing her essential ambiguity as questions about her possibly poisonous influence on Rosmer drive the drama. In the early scenes, there is a certainty and directness with a firm grasp of the household business, while repeatedly urging Rosmer to tell Kroll the truth about his changing views. Its subtly done, an almost wifely or motherly control that only in retrospect, once we hear the Governor’s perspective, suggests her puppet-mastery.
But Ibsen ensures that Rebecca is no obvious villain, unfolding aspects of her backstory and the acquaintance with the Rosmers at key moments that not only enlighten the audience but come even as a surprise to her. As we focus entirely on Rebecca in the second half of the play, Atwell’s performance grows in stature, responding to revelations and accusations with shock but also a fierce determination to live a life free of externally-imposed rules. Her monologue in Act III that expounds her decision to eschew the trappings of family and love is passionately and meaningfully delivered, a classic Ibsen woman raging against attempts to cage her.
Self-realisation is the focus of the final Act and Atwell superbly conveys the effect of this new understanding as Rebecca’s intellectual determination is somehow betrayed by the biology she has long sought to control. The fresh understanding of her effect at Rosmersholm and particularly on its owner brings an overwhelming guilt that leads to a final dramatic revelation and a sacrificial act the truth of which Atwell leaves the audience to determine. Atwell’s ability to suggest strength and frailty at the same time is terrific, so whether Rebecca is a truly good woman ahead of her time or a force to destroy traditions and people she doesn’t understand remains purposefully and provocatively unanswered.
By contrast, Tom Burke’s Rosmer is a shade of a man, a character weakened by a grief and guilt he cannot truly fathom. It is a very skilful performance from Burke to suggest a mind so easily influenced, politically fervent one minute and wavering the next, while subtly introducing what seems to be an emotional break-down. Rosmer dominates the action in Acts I and II, apparently in control of his mind and implying that his friendship with Rebecca has released him from the burden of his ever-visible ancestry and importantly from the restrictive confines of his faith – intrinsic to the fabric of local society against which his new-found atheism sets him at odds.
It is only later in light of our shifting perspective on Rebecca that we come to see Rosmer differently, as a man emotionally paralysed by his wife’s earlier suicide and, in Burke’s well controlled performance, in the grip of a grief-driven madness that creates a fervency in his political views and potentially his feeling for Rebecca which may be a mere delusion of his survivor’s guilt. The Hamlet parallels come thick and fast, not just in an explosive moment in Act III as Rosmer thrusts flowers into the hands of his servants as he apologises for his own prolongation of the feudal system, but also in the low-key emotional crash which follows as Burke’s Rosmer finds himself unable to take the decisive step he craves, his courage failing him as the past reasserts its control over his present.
Rosmer is a quiet character with an essential weakness, looking to Rebecca at the end of Act II and on into Acts III and IV to lead him forward which Burke conveys extremely well. Like Atwell, Burke becomes his characters so convincingly that the relationship between them is incredibly involving, the longed-for duologues that dominate the second half of the play are enthralling as they face not just their feeling for each other but also the political, social and reputational cost of their past, current and future relationship.
Giles Terera’s Governor captures the upstanding but fearful nature of the local politician, desperate to save his friend from himself while ensuring his own electability. Though dressed as concern for his deceased sister, it matters that Ibsen choses the eve of the election to send Professor Kroll to the house for the first time in a year while clearly he has used his influence to discover more about Rebecca. Kroll changes his opinion of her, railing when she’s out of the room, but more forgiving in her presence, suggesting perhaps an admiration for her determination and how effectively her personal attributes work on him despite his determination to resist them.
If Rickson’s production has one failing it is the curious inclusion of Rosmer’s former tutor Ulrik Brendel whose reappearance lends credit to the notion that the landlord had radical sympathies before he knew Rebecca, but Peter Wright’s rather conscious performance as the teacher-turned-philosophising tramp feels more like a court jester than a firebrand living beyond social law. The character seems superfluous here, adding little to the drama, with his bigger performance derailing the fragile balance of the scene, particularly in the very powerful final conversation between the leads.
Rosmersholm is rarely seen these days but it is a play with a pertinent political and social commentary that clearly justifies this new revival. These resonances are a little on the nose at times, but murmurs of recognition sweep across the audience as characters discuss the deceptive nature of elections, as well as the duties of class and legacy. Hayley Atwell’s multi-layered and charismatic central performance shows that Rebecca West is a heroine like no other, refusing to be shackled by a society that seeks to contain her. Most importantly Rickson’s gripping production suggests that great female roles are to be found among the classics if only we look hard enough.