Tag Archives: Hayley Atwell

Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre

Rosmersholm - Duke of York's Theatre

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.

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Measure for Measure – Donmar Warehouse

Measure for Measure - Donmar Warehouse

As Josie Rourke enters her final months as Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, schemes like Barclays Front Row and now Klaxon offering low-priced tickets to often sold-out shows, along with a focus on female-led theatre will be her legacy. Fitting then that part of her directorial swansong should be an inspired and experimental take on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In a year of revelations about the abuse of power and sexual misconduct, the timing couldn’t be better for this intriguing tale of blackmail, morality and duty.

Gender-blind casting has becoming fairly standard in recent years, at the most basic level giving female actors the chance to play some of drama’s greatest roles, while also offering alternative perspectives on familiar scenarios. But one thing you never see is the same character simultaneously from the male and female perspective, so while a female Henry V might be intriguing, audiences cannot compare this instantly with an equivalent male performance and must wait until some other production comes along. Josie Rourke’s Measure for Measure changes all that.

On the same night, either side of the interval, the roles of Angelo and Isabella are shared by Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell, while the production also divides its time between the early seventeenth century and 2018. There were various possibilities for this approach – the actors could play the roles on alternate nights as Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller did with Frankenstein, or the swap could simply happen half way through the play. Instead, O’Rourke plumps for the most unusual option, slashing the text to a core 90 minutes and playing it through twice, that is exactly the same text once with Lowden as Angelo and Atwell as Isabella, and after the interval, playing it all again with Atwell reading Angelo’s lines (but called Isabella) and Lowden performing as Isabella (but called Angelo). It’s a risky strategy with a show that ultimate clocks in at around three hours, but it’s a daring endeavour that is richly rewarding.

The Duke of Vienna decides to take a holiday and leave his reluctant friend Angelo in charge, making him the city’s leading judge. A pure and moral region, Claudio is accused of fornication and the sober Angelo sentences him to death. Encouraged to plead for his life, Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novice nun, duly visits Angelo who is instantly captivated by her, offering to spare her brother’s life in return for her virginity. Forced to choose between her body and her soul, can Angelo’s terrible power be bested?

The easy abuse of power and how it changes people’s behaviour is a core theme for Shakespeare, throwing the individual’s moral code into flux. Most often for murderous or greedy ends, characters pursue power to alter their own status, to win a higher position in government as happens in Hamlet and Macbeth or to jealously disrupt the purer life of someone else as in Othello. In Measure for Measure, power is wielded purely for sexual purposes, Angelo’s conquest of Isabella won’t later affect the materiality of his circumstances in any way, he propositions her as a temporary distraction, more an exercise in ego than a strategy for higher gain – themes that will resonant strongly with the events of the last year.

All of this comes across really strongly in the first half of the Donmar’s production, largely divested of its subplots, the audience is asked to focus sharply on the central theme of moral and bodily corruption in a show that asks big questions about trading one for the other. But Rourke ensures it’s not an open and shut case, she wants us to consider the opposing positions of Angelo and Isabella, to ask ourselves what we would do in the same situation and to think about the ways in which morality has changed in 400 years. Is Isabella a paragon, a saintly figure to be admired, or is her refusal to succumb to Angelo’s desires, and thereby assure her brother’s death, a cruel and stubborn act?

In this first section, the sympathies deliberately sway. Jack Lowden’s Angelo is an interesting proposition, a man seemingly driven by right and duty, applying the law as it stands but without compassion or clemency. His first encounter with Isabella clearly ignites a rapid and unexpected passion that he is unused to experiencing, and Lowden makes us believe he genuinely falls for her – it appears to mean far more to him than just having the upper hand.

But Lowden never lets us forget that how Angelo translates that emotion is monstrous, however genuine his feeling for Isabella, the scene in which he makes his intentions clear is deeply uncomfortable. As he looms in on her, riven with lust, she comprehends his purpose exactly, and Atwell is superb in relaying the powerlessness and fear that Isabella feels in that moment, frozen and shaking with tears that becomes a striking reminder that Angelo’s unrequited love for her can never excuse his invasive manipulation of her body and mind.

As the story is resolved the production flashes forward to 2018 and replays the first scene again, this time with Atwell reading Angelo’s lines but named as Isabella. After the interval, the play resumes from the condemnation of Claudio, and Atwell’s approach is slightly different to Lowden’s – although both are equally valid and fascinating creations. She makes the character more beguiling, more openly lustful and confident, while no less deceptively calculating. This Isabella has greater self-assurance than the equivalent Angelo in Act One, who seemed a cold man remote from the world and almost awoken by his passion. Instead, Atwell plays her as a sharp-minded woman seizing on a tasty opportunity that suddenly presents itself, worldly and entitled.

Her scenes with Lowden now are quite different, without the physical height and strength to overcome him, she manoeuvres him into position and waits to pounce. Openly admiring him, Atwell has a way of tilting her head to peer at Angelo (reading as Isabella), emphasising her social if not muscular dominance over him. Instead of the devout virgin of 1604, Lowden gives us a former bad boy who has found redemption at a Christian retreat and Isabella’s pursuit of him tests his resolve – although, it is more awkward than uncomfortable to watch him extricate himself from the proposition scene, perhaps because he seems more acquainted with the world and better able to handle himself than the trapped young woman of the original.

It may seem a chore to watch the same show through twice and you do need a bit of resolve to stick with it, but the outcome is worth the investment. There are two very interesting things happening in this finely honed and balanced production; first one way to read the approach is that the Isabella and Angelo of the second half are the direct consequence of the Isabella and Angelo of the first. Forget the fact they swap lines and imagine what actually happened to the characters at the end of Shakespeare’s original play, who did they become in the future?

Here Rourke asks us to consider, that although Isabella was young, innocent and seemingly incorruptible in terms of her chastity, did having the power of life and death over another man (even for the right reasons) ultimately corrupt her? Did close exposure to that male world of politics and power create a future scenario in which the one-time victim becomes the perpetrator? Atwell certainly hints that the fiery certainty of Isabella in Act One could be the same woman in Act Two only older and more experienced. Her righteousness after the interval seems to suggest the dying embers of an original morality now corrupted by authority.

Likewise, it is entirely conceivable that the dastardly Angelo has spent the intervening years seeking atonement for his sins, arriving at the retreat as a form of therapy to correct his poor behaviour. Like Atwell, Lowden makes this interpretation entirely credible drawing on his portrait of initial sobriety as Act One Angelo to inform and make sense of his Act Two desire to seek religious penance for his earlier behaviour. His reaction to Isabella’s proposition is then deepened by the idea that he now understands the damaging effect of his original behaviour, hence the determination not to succumb. So the question really becomes – are Angelo and Isabella essentially two sides of the same coin, an eternal loop of corruption and reclamation?

Secondly, are we also being asked to question our own judgement about the differences between the two scenarios? Morally they are inexcusably the same, a more powerful individual manipulating a weaker one is unquestionably wrong, but watching it, the production is also testing our own conscience and whether we feel that a gender-swapped twenty-first century Isabella propositioning Angelo is less troubling that the seventeenth-century original. Does society still innately believe that a woman, lacking in physical strength, cannot cajole a man into sex in the same way? Part of that is in the equivalent performances in which Lowden’s cold Angelo is more repellent than Atwell’s slightly coquettish and personable Isabella, but this Measure for Measure asks tough questions – are we really as liberal as we’d like to think? Using power to manipulate another person should be the same regardless of gender but it is intriguing how the alternative perspective of the second half plays with our prejudices on this issue.

Cynically, a double dose of Measure for Measure shouldn’t work, but this re-gendered combination is a gamble that pays off, sending you home with plenty to think about for days afterwards. Peter McKintosh’s simple set, combined with Howard Harrison’s interesting lighting design easily evokes two eras, allowing the power of the lower-lit traditional section to speak for itself uncluttered by scenery, while adding a livelier feel for 2018. The overall concept adds some knowing touches to the modern era with conversations transposed to phone calls and the local prostitutes given an Eastern European background.

Among the supporting cast, Nicholas Burns adds a creepy touch as the helpful undercover Duke with an agenda of his own. His pursuit of Isabella is as disturbing as Angelo’s showing that predators may come disguised as white knights, while Burns becomes more physical in his attempt to seduce Angelo in 2018 which contrasts well with Isabella’s more implicit approach. Matt Bardock is equally notable as the rascally Lucio, while Sule Rimi gives the imprisoned Claudio plenty of injured resentment at his sister / brother’s refusal to help.

As Josie Rourke steps down from the Donmar, this show is one to remember for all the right reasons. In a year of very strong Shakespeare interpretations – Julius Caesar, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra especially – this Measure for Measure has taken the biggest gamble of them all and won. With two terrific performers in Atwell and Lowden each giving two absorbing performances, it is an evening that opens your eyes to how differently Shakespeare’s text can be interpreted and how changing gender can give theatre an added political power.

Measure for Measure is at the Donmar Warehouse until 24 November. Tickets are sold-out but extra seats will available via Klaxon every Monday and day seats at the box office. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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