Below is a review of the new Rosmersholm play by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Duncan Macmillan and directed by Ian Rickson.
Review by Cheryl Anderson
Cormoran Strike, in Lethal White, remembers a play where white horses appear as a death omen – that play is Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm and possibly the Norwegian playwright’s masterpiece.
We know that Rosmersholm is a key to understanding Lethal White because the play is quoted at the head of each chapter. This week in a delicious symmetry, an adaptation of Rosmersholm began at the Duke of York Theatre in London (running until the 20th July) starring Tom Burke as Rosmer – the very same Tom Burke who played Strike on TV so successfully and who is about to film Lethal White (we hope).
Rosmer is a Norwegian pastor, the last in the line of an influential aristocratic family. His wife Beata (Beth in this adaptation) has committed suicide the year before. Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell), employed by Beth’s brother, Dr Kroll (Giles Ferrera), to care for Beth who had been exhibiting signs of mental illness, remains in the house. The death of Rosmer’s wife Beth still hangs heavily over it. It has long been believed that white horses are seen at Rosmersholm before a death.
In Norway, it is a time of great struggle – between the political left and political right, between tradition and progress, and between the old order and the new. This struggle forces its way into Rosmersholm as the upheaval in society tragically triggers upheaval of a deeply personal kind for those connected to the house.
Why is Rosmersholm a key to Lethal White? The play deals with politics, the workings of the press, manipulation, blackmail, suicide, passion (and the lack of it), love. It deals with inequality, poverty, rights for women and the poor. This calls into question morality, idealism and religion and throws up the impossibility of knowing another just by relying on the words they speak alone. Not much to grapple with there then! It is for those who read Lethal White to make the connections!
As for this production, Rebecca West is one of the great roles written for women and Hayley Atwell is outstanding. She captures all the complex nuances of the role – Rebecca is strong, independent, passionate, captivating, eloquent but is she all she seems and is she vulnerable? Who or what is this woman before us?
Rosmer is no Cormoran Strike! Strike is streetwise and cynical. He understands how people tick which makes him difficult to manipulate. He has suffered tragedy and pain, he has seen and felt passion in his life but is also, in some ways, emotionally repressed. He has seen terrible things and is used to grubbing about in the seamier side of life. He is realistic but he wants to make a difference.
Rosmer, on the other hand, is privileged. When we meet him, he too is repressed but he is also indecisive, easily influenced and easily manipulated. He comes to feel crippling guilt for his wife’s death. Uncertain of his true self, he needs someone to lean on. He wants to ennoble the oppressors and the oppressed through respect, patience and compassion and to awaken others as he has been awakened by Rebecca. But he is forced to confront his own nature – does he have Rebecca’s strength and passion for the fight? To renounce family, wealth, tradition and friends? Does he really know and understand Rebecca?
Strike and Rosmer share a deep concern about people and about social injustice. They both have a deep vulnerability, and no one can show this concern and this vulnerability better than Tom Burke. Tom takes us every step of the way as Rosmer goes on a deeply troubling journey of self- discovery. He shows us Rosmer’s idealism, his new-found ability to love but also to feel guilt, his confusion and despair and sometimes his anger. Together Tom Burke and Hayley Atwell convince us that there is only one way that the struggle in Rosmersholm can be resolved.
But this production is not all dark and relentlessly intense. There are moments of humour and irony, sharp observations and witty asides strewn throughout the text, particularly about the press and political uncertainty, expertly done by a wonderful cast. The audience recognises immediately the relevance for the times we live in.
The show is beautifully lit with shafts of sunlight streaming through half shuttered windows onto a set of a once grand room but now neglected since the death of Mrs Rosmer. The room and characters are dressed in the period the play was written (1886) – important because both the house and the dress of the characters are crucial to the play. The sunlight changes as the day moves through to night. The sound effects emphasise the forces of nature at work and the sense of place. There is an amazing special effect at the end – but no spoilers!
I am struggling to find anything negative to say and those who saw it with me could not either – so great job everyone involved in Rosmersholm, you deserved the standing ovations!!
You can order your Rosmersholm tickets from rosmersholmplay.com
You can also see the Duke of York’s seating plan here.
We would like to say a huge thanks to Cheryl for writing this brilliant review of Rosmersholm. She is a long-time Tom Burke fan and theatre lover. Here is a photo of her and some of the Burketeers with Tom after the play on Friday (26th April):
We hope you can all get to see the play at some point. Please let us know what you think if you’re lucky enough to go!