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.
Rosmersholm is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 20 July with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.
May 1st, 2019 at 11:30 pm
Let’s start with points of agreement. Ibsen is indeed a wonderful dramatist and, in my opinion, writes female characters brilliantly – sympathetically, unsentimentally and, perhaps most important, ‘warts and all’. You might have a point, too, about good parts for women being more common 100-150 years ago than more recently. Before Ibsen there was Wagner and following Ibsen’s lead a plethora of well-written female roles. I struggle to find the likes of Nora Helmer, Maggie Hobson-Mossop, Vivie Warren, Janet (& Mary) Rutherford and many more after WW1.
I agree about Tom Burke – a very fine performance. I was in two minds about Hayley Atwell – either she is over-acting or very cleverly depicting a character who is herself putting on an act. Let’s say it’s the latter, so making her performance the equal of Burke’s. Like you, I didn’t like Peter Wright’s Brendel. He seemed to be channelling Robbie Coltrane at times! I disagree about the character. I don’t think Ibsen puts characters in for nothing, but I’ll come to that later.
The biggest problem I had with this production is that huge swathes of it are not Ibsen. The adaptation is all over the place and I don’t think this is a positive thing. I don’t know the play as well as I do several other Ibsen works (never seen it on stage, heard the radio broadcast a few weeks ago and read it at least twice) but I sat in my front row day seat asking myself over and over again ‘is there any textual justification for this?’. To take a few examples:
“it matters that Ibsen choses the eve of the election”
It might matter if Ibsen had done so. But there is no election in the text as far as I can see. Wikipedia seems to think Kroll’s concern is with the new radical government but I can’t see any evidence for that, either. Ostensibly his concern is to enlist Rosmer’s support for his new paper designed to counteract Mortensgaaard’s disturbingly popular The Lighthouse.
“Rosmer thrusts flowers into the hands of his servants as he apologises for his own prolongation of the feudal system”
Unfortunately, these servants are not in the play either. And you can be sure if Ibsen had wanted these supernumeraries in the cast list he’d have put them there. Ironically, most modern directors leave them out of other plays – take, for example, The Wild Duck which includes:
A Flabby Gentleman., A Thin-Haired Gentleman, A Short-Sighted Gentleman, Six Other Gentlemen, Guests At Werle’s Dinner-Party,Several Hired Waiters.
(bet you didn’t spot them in Robert Icke’s ‘version’).
I could give you many more examples but Rosmersholm isn’t among them.
Rosmersholm has six named characters and no more. To me, this matters because, like several of his late plays, it deals with the psychology of the main characters and, as you noticed, slowly reveals the past events that formed them. Events in the present are almost incidental. Duncan MacMillan’s adaptation, with its trite insistence on referencing modern politics and filling the stage with extras, has turned an exquisite psychodrama almost into melodrama.
“while the viewer may want a conversation between her and Rosmer, Ibsen makes us wait until Act III for anything of substance”
Perhaps, Macmillan does (I can’t remember, tbh). Ibsen has an eight page scene between the couple at the end of Act II (including the marriage proposal and Rebecca’s rejection of same). I think this is fairly substantial, though it is rather eclipsed later by the revelations about Rebecca’s attitude to Beate (or Beth, as she has unaccountably become in a list that includes an Ulrik and an Andreas).
To sum up, the production is decent enough entertainment but should surely be something else. On the page it’s a tense drama laden with symbolism. Ibsen’s original name for it was White Horses so it’s ironic that Macmillan ends with a cringeworthy whinnying sound (made me think of Frau Blucher!) and flooding the stage (and soaking the feet of some of us in the front row). Ibsen’s close is rather different but I hesitate to quote it here when the production hasn’t yet opened. It’s easy enough to find in the Gutenberg Project’s text.
I suppose the silver lining is that Macmillan’s ambiguity leaves the way clear for my adaptation. In my version Rosmer backs out at the last minute, leaving just one body under the water. I already have my opening line:
Last night I dreamt I went to Rosmersholm again.
May 2nd, 2019 at 11:31 am
Hi John – so we disagree as ever but that’s fine. As you mentioned in your other message, translations can vary wildly and clearly Macmillan’s adaptation has made some changes, but for me they were suited to the nature of this production and the focus on the leading roles in particular.
I think my review was clear that Brendel felt superfluous only to this production, but clearly has an important role in the play generally, especially, as you say, because Ibsen is very specific about character creation. But I have far fewer qualms about the other amendments than you clearly do and I didn’t feel they impaired the psycho-drama at its centre or the symbolic relevance of the play.
As a rarely seen piece, it was interesting to see it at all and while respect for the (variously translated) original and authorial intention is important, a play must also have life beyond the page. Theatre is a living thing, evolving as technology, style and society changes – what makes the classics last is their ability to speak to the consistency of human nature and emotion. I don’t want to see a play performed exactly the same way every single time, they’re not museum pieces, and many playwrights would be thrilled that their work can respond to and potentially be clarified by or find further resonances in techniques and approaches available to us now. But I know you feel differently about.
Anyway thanks for adding further information for those unfamiliar with the work, it will help people to have a more informed response to the work.
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