Rosmersholm review: Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke are superb ★★★★

Ibsen's darkest play feels like the ideal one for our times, says Nick Wells

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“Is there not nobility in not taking a side?” asks John Rosmer, in a passage that goes to the heart of this transfixing update to one of Henrik Ibsen’s lesser-performed plays. “Everyone has a side”, is the unflinching reply. Or, as becomes increasingly evident, everyone insists you have a side. Preferably theirs, otherwise you’ll be seen to be in cahoots with the enemy.

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The drama revolves around Rosmer (Tom Burke), a former pastor, and his companion, Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell). Secluded inside his estate, both are haunted by the memory of Rosmer’s late wife, who took her own life a year earlier. Having lost his faith and abandoned his conservative political ideals, Rosmer has decided to pursue a more socialist outlook of equality for all, encouraged by the emancipated Rebecca. 

Change, however, as it so often proves, is more easily spoken of than come by. 

Alienated from his lifelong friends, and pressurised by his ideological former brother-in-law, Andreas Kroll (Giles Terera), Rosmer is buffeted by both dissenters and supporters alike and suffers a crisis of identity that consumes both himself and Rebecca.

It may have been written in the late nineteenth century but director Ian Rickson and writer Duncan Macmillan (People, Places and Things) have found many compelling contemporary parallels that ground the politics in those of today. In particular, the combustible nature of debate and disagreement.

Kroll, affronted by Rosmer taking an opposing view to his, doesn’t just question his arguments but his motives for having them, suggesting that he is either weak and under coercion or in it for personal gain. Kroll’s intolerance to other’s voicing different opinions, it turns out, even extends to his wife and children, with whom he has irreparably fallen out. The notion that people aren’t just wrong but nefarious is one we now see all too often (just spend five minutes on Twitter), though rarely is it this eloquent and entertaining.

The play originally focused on the tension between traditional and modern values, in light of the demise of Christian religiosity. The strength of this production, though, is that while it weaves in more familiar societal conflicts it never loses sight of their effect on the people involved. What’s important, it suggests, is not just what we debate but the manner in which we do so.

The production emphasises how Rosmer and Rebecca are damaged by the hostility around them. He is persuaded by her spirit of freedom and her his propriety and decency. But, even as they come to understand one another’s differences, the rancour and intransigence surrounding them prove inescapable. The most powerful idea put forward is the impossibility of being a moderate in such an incendiary environment, and it’s a sobering one.

The performances of the central trio are simply superb. People may be more used to seeing Tom Burke and Hayley Atwell on the small screen, but their stagecraft is exemplary and the relationship between them is sparkling. Giles Terera, an Olivier Award winner for Hamilton, is equally as impressive as the zealous Kroll and the rest of the cast offer admirable support.

It may not be performed all that often, but this adaptation feels like a play for our times.

 

Playing until 20 July 2019

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