Monday, October 14, 2019

Rosmersholm: The Pitfalls of Idealism

Hayley Atwell and company in Rosmersholm. (Photo: Johan Persson)

The idealists in Ibsen’s plays invariably end badly – sometimes by destroying the lives of others (Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck is the salient and most shocking example), but almost always by destroying themselves. In Chekhov, as in Shakespeare, human folly is the inescapable verity that always undermines the noble talk, though both these playwrights handle the fools with pity and compassion because they know in their hearts that we’re all fools. Ibsen is less pitying. In his 1886 Rosmersholm, which received an exquisite production in the West End under Ian Rickson’s direction early last summer, almost everyone on stage claims to be living according to an unassailable set of principles. John Rosmer (Tom Burke) is a one-time pastor who abandoned God after the suicide of his invalid wife Beth, but the freedom he asserts he has found is limited by his inability – like, apparently, all his ancestors, whose portraits hang on the walls of his house, Rosmersholm – to express emotion, especially sexually. (This is perhaps Ibsen’s most damning depiction of Scandinavian-Victorian coldness.) Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell), who loves him and lives at Rosmersholm with him though she does not share his bed, credits him with having brought her to enlightenment, but late in the play she confesses that she helped to drive his wife, whose caregiver she was, to her death. Rosmer’s main adversary is his brother-in-law Andreas Kroll (Giles Terrera), the local governor, who represents the forces of conservatism and, like all of Ibsen’s conservatives, is certain that his politics are the bedrock upon which civilization must stand if it is to survive. Kroll’s bugbear is Peter Mortensgaard (Jake Fairbrother), who runs a liberal newspaper; Rosmer, who has not forgiven himself for his unkind treatment of Peter and his now-dead lover (another suicide) in his days as a man of the cloth, offers to support his bid to displace Andreas, only to find that a man who has lost his faith is of no political use to Mortensgaard.

Tough as nails and as dense as a great Jacobean tragedy, Rosmersholm is seldom revived, though I’ve been fortunate enough to see not one but two formidable productions. (The first, directed by Neil Munro, was at the Shaw Festival in 2006, with a vibrant Patrick Galligan as Rosmer.) I think it’s one of Ibsen’s masterpieces. Listening to the dialogue, I felt once more in awe of the economy of the playwright’s mastery of dramatic language – I imagine that the adaptor, Duncan Macmillan, deserves some of the praise here – because there’s so much going on in every exchange that if you stop listening you’re sure to miss a significant shift or revelation. Most plays present you with little wisps that are meant to pass as ideas; in this one you walk away with your head full of truly profound ideas, and you’re still working them through when you wake up the next morning. The characters are alive with the force of them, even if what they stand for is impossibly wrongheaded, and when they realize it, as the protagonists inevitably do, they take radical steps because they can’t live with their mistakes. That’s true of Hedda Gabler and Nora Helmer, and it’s true of Rosmer and Rebecca, who follow Beth into the mill-race at the end of the fourth act.

In Ghosts, Mrs. Alving – who does try to change, but too late to save her artist son, afflicted with syphilis he inherited from his dissolute father – explains the title: ghosts are dead ideas that could vanish in the light of truth if we were only brave enough to expose them to it. (Ghosts is Ibsen’s most famous critique of Victorianism.) Rickson’s production, which resides visually on the cusp of impressionism and symbolism, plays with the tension between darkness and light that Mrs. Alving’s well-known speech addresses. Rae Smith’s gorgeous set, a deep interior with long, long side walls, is suffused with mist that creeps in from the sea and hovers like a nimbus over the portable gas lights imported by the domestics for the dinner party in act one; the masterly lighting is by Neil Austin, the most gifted of England’s current crop of designers. (If you’ve seen a brilliantly lit show in the past several seasons that originated in England, chances are Austin designed it: he’s won the Tony Award two years in a row, once for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and again for Ink, and he did the breathtaking revival of Brian Friel’s Translations at the National Theatre in 2018.) At the end, when Rosmer and Rebecca leap to their deaths offstage, the weather that suggests the triumph of the voracious past liquefies, and, in a coup de th√©√Ętre, the mill-race, stalled by the weight of their bodies, seeps under the walls.

Rickson is a great director; I’ll never forget his daringly realist production of Pinter’s Betrayal in London eight years ago with Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Miles and Douglas Henshall, and he helmed the National Translations, too. Here he shows genius in both his staging and his work with his flawless cast. After the opening scene between Rebecca and the housekeeper, Mrs. Helseth (Lucy Briers), the ensemble – Rosmersholm’s domestic staff – slips silently into the drawing room and sets it up for the dinner, removing the cloth from the furniture and from the portraits on the walls, and the past comes vividly and unsettlingly alive again. I love the way Rickson uses the servants, for instance hovering upstage out of curiosity when the notorious revolutionary Ulrik Brendel (Peter Wight), Rosmer’s old teacher, pays him a visit; though in act three, when Rosmer’s home is under attack by members of the community, and he naively proclaims to the servants that they’re not inferior to him, loads them down with flowers and vases and sends them home, I was struck (for the only time during the evening) by incredulousness and a sense of missed opportunity. The servants would be reluctant to leave; Rosmer may fancy himself a rebel against tradition, but they certainly wouldn’t be, any more than Kristin is in Strindberg’s Miss Julie.

Terera and Wight, who appears out of the mist in long, straggly hair and rags, are both particularly witty. Terera is also refreshingly convivial – he may look like a ghost but he warms up this icy house. Burke gives a fascinating performance, though he’s less charismatic than Galligan was at the Shaw. And Atwell is a revelation as Rebecca, especially in her third-act confession speech. I’ve enjoyed watching her as Peggy Carter in the Marvel movies and I found her very touching opposite Ewan McGregor in Christopher Robin, but nothing she’s done on the big screen compares with the piercing intelligence and emotional complexity of her performance here. Of course, she’s playing one of the great (if unheralded) Ibsen women’s roles – and God knows she’s up to it. I can hardly wait to catch up with her as Margaret Schlegel in the recent miniseries of Forster’s Howards End.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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