Tag Archives: Henrik Ibsen

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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Hedda Gabler – National Theatre

hedda-gabler-national-theatre

“Academics are no fun” according to Hedda Gabler in Patrick Marber’s modern reworking of Ibsen’s famous play, but they are dependable, reliable and safe, so despite years of flirtation and numerous suitors she marries one because it was time. This year we have seen some particularly outstanding female performances; Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea and Billy Piper in Yerma were two of the finest portrayals not just in 2016 but any year, and with a couple of weeks to go Ruth Wilson joins them with her take on the infamous heroine.

Ivo van Hove is one of the few theatre directors who is as well-known as his productions. Much like Robert Icke, Carrie Cracknell and Jamie Lloyd, his style is distinctive, recognisable and notably innovative – incidentally this production of Hedda is sharing the Lyttelton stage with Icke’s astonishing version of The Red Barn (which earned my first five star professional review) staring Mark Strong who’s last stage appearance was coincidentally in van Hove’s game-changing A View From the Bridge. To Hedda Gabler, van Hove brings his ability to deconstruct classic plays and sweep away preconceptions to create slicing visions of quite modern people engaged in battles against their own destruction.

Hedda Gabler is a much admired local society beauty who surprises the town by marrying quiet up-and-coming academic Tesman. The play opens as the couple return home from a 6 month honeymoon and research trip to the house Hedda once claimed she always wanted and to face the men she once dallied with including Judge Brack who continues to visit in the hope of an opportunity.  As Hedda begins to suffocate, rival academic Lovborg returns to town with his lover Mrs Elvsted, casting doubt on Tesman’s academic future, and when Hedda decides to alleviate her boredom by meddling with the relationships around her, she brings only destruction.

van Hove’s production is strikingly modern from the off, and instantly sets it apart from earlier period-set versions – including Sheridan Smith’s excellent take at the Old Vic in 2012. We’re used to seeing Ibsen in claustrophobic rooms overstuffed with furniture that mimics the oppression of his characters, but here van Hove instead introduces a virtually bare city apartment, designed by Jan Versweyveld, suggesting both the current poverty of the newlyweds unable to furnish it to the standards Hedda expected, and reiterating the idea that it is the moral and emotional lives of the characters that oppresses them not their décor. They would be equally tormented in any room and it is credit to van Hove and particularly to Wilson that they manage to fill the cavernous Lyttleton stage with Hedda’s interior life.

Occasionally referred to as the female Hamlet, this version departs somewhat from the idea of inevitable doom and instead slowly charts the descent of a smart woman, used to controlling and toying with those around her who stubbornly refuses to help herself when several opportunities for escape present themselves. She is more than merely a bird in a cage, but someone who has built that cage for herself and (almost morally) refuses to go back on her word, accepting the consequences. So, the play’s conclusion comes not from certainty but after a moment of weakness is politically outmanoeuvred and backed into a corner by fear of the kind of public scandal which has kept her marriage intact.

Wilson’s Hedda is complex and fascinating, managing to tread the line between alluring and repellent, victim of circumstance and active agent in events. During the first half we see her frustration build and snap; she’s barely civil to her husband and his aunt, rapidly wheedles the truth with faux friendship from Mrs Elvsted and relishes the moments of flirtation with Lovborg and Brack. Coming back from a dull honeymoon, Wilson shows Hedda slowly resuming her former, rather vicious and arrogant, character and belief in her power over others, so at the interval she feels emboldened by the havoc she has unleashed.

In the second half of the evening we see just how wrong she has been, so here Wilson is able to display Hedda’s delusion and vulnerability – particularly as a supposedly strong woman that never leaves that empty house. Her belief in her irresistibility comes crashing down as both her liaisons prove, in her words, “vulgar” and still fails to realise that her husband is the only man who genuinely loved her unconditionally. Meanwhile the small victory she claims in the first half over Lovborg and Mrs Elvsted is brutally revisited upon her and, on stage throughout, Wilson conveys every nuance of Hedda’s suffering and loss of spirit as fate turns against her. It is an excellent and meaningful performance that doesn’t try to make you like her, but compels you to watch her nonetheless.

Wilson is given excellent support by the rest of the cast, particularly Rafe Spall as Brack. Often portrayed as a bearded old man, this young Judge is slick, confidence and right out of some sinister gangster movie. Spall is all charm and determination as he oils is way around Hedda in the early scenes, but not put off by her refusals to betray her marriage, he is also a predator and waits for the perfect opportunity to bite. The chemistry with Wilson crackles as they flirt dangerously with one another, which is a high point of the show.

Likewise there is considerable chemistry with Chukwudi Iwuji’s Lovborg, a man driven by the discovery of his own genius and the fruition of his ideas. Along with Mrs Elvsted – an occasionally stilted but felt Sinead Matthews – they are the counterpoint to Hedda and Tesman’s relationship, one built on mutual understanding, support and respect which Hedda decides to destroy. Poldark fans will recognise Kyle Soller’s Tesman, a character not that dissimilar to Francis who also married a women who didn’t love him, but here Soller retains his natural American accent which does stand out a bit, especially as the narrative has all the characters originating in the same town. Nonetheless, Tesman is given a parallel life of his own driven by academia and the strong bonds with his aunts while being in thrall to Heddar which Soller conveys really well.

Throughout van Hove creates drama and tension while Marber cleverly plays with metaphors of emptiness and dawning light. The bare apartment and repeated references to whether Hedda is pregnant or not imply an emptiness inside her that cannot be filled, and here An D’Huys costumes puts Hedda initially in a visible silk slip shrouded in a black dressing gown suggesting her suppressed sexuality, but later in the play the dressing gown is removed as the real Hedda emerges – as slippery and thin as her costume. Linked to this is the use of sunlight in the room which Hedda initially reacts badly to and tries to shade, but at the start of part two as her real self emerges the stage is bathed in a bronze sunrise as she flirts heatedly with Brack, and then as events close in around her, she becomes entirely entombed in a dark and falsely lit world.

The National Theatre has hit a purple patch and this version of Hedda Gabler rounds off a fantastic year of shows that, after a lengthy dry spell, has ensured its back at the top of its game. The attraction of visionary directors like Cracknell, Icke and van Hove has given momentum to its programme of new and classic productions that are not just good quality but also innovative and appealing for new audiences. Marber’s translation of Hedda Gabler feels fresh and dangerous, and while the strange decision to use occasional music to underscore Hedda’s depression jars – and is something Wilson manages perfectly well on her own – this memorable production adds one final flourish to a year of great female performances.

Hedda Gabler is at the National Theatre until 21 March 2017. Tickets start at £15 and the show is part of the Friday Rush scheme offering tickets to sold out productions for the following week at £20 –  1pm every Friday. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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