Rosmersholm - Duke of York's Theatre, London (Henrik Ibsen)

Edvard Munch – Love and Angst

Well it's been a very busy few days, but let’s face it, you don’t really care about days 1-3 of my little jaunt to London, you’re here to find out about Tom’s new play aren’t you?!

Theatre programme for Ibsen's Rosmersholm, 1893 by Edouard Vuillard
Well, first of all, there's a small, but interesting diversion, as Monday started with a trip to the British Museum to see the work of another Norwegian, the artist Edvard Munch.
When I cruised around Norway a few years ago, his most famous painting The Scream seemed to be everywhere. It has become a universal symbol for anxiety, and this collection of prints in a collection entitled “Love and Angst” showed Munch’s exploration of his personal experiences of death and suffering throughout his life. It seemed the perfect introduction to get into the mindset of the evening’s play, which was to be a Norwegian writer’s exploration of human suffering.

Munch found his native homeland restrictive to his liberal ideas. He moved throughout Europe, just like Ibsen, and in fact he developed a friendship with both the playwrights Ibsen and Strindberg, which gave him an interest in the theatre. Hypnosis and the power of suggestion was becoming increasingly looked into in the 1880’s this can be seen in another play that Tom Burke has been in, August Strindbergs Creditors, which again explored how easily a man can be manipulated by a woman. 

Whilst Munch fell out with Strindberg, he developed a particular interest in Ibsen’s plays, his dark art shocked society, and Ibsen’s plays which focused on dark subject matters such as immorality, adultery and hypocrisy made them an ideal working partnership when it came to stage set and theatre programme designs. 

Henrik Ibsen 1902
Following Ibsen’s death in 1906, the German director Max Reinhardt asked Munch to design the sets for Ghosts, one of Ibsen’s earlier plays. Munch felt a close bond with the character Osvald who had inherited syphilis from his profligate father. Having watched his sister die, and as a family dealing with grief, Munch was able to transfer his own feelings of tragedy onto Ibsen’s characters. When he met the elderly Ibsen in 1893, he was told “Believe me – you will have the same fate as I – the more enemies, the more friends.” And in the 21st century that is to be believed, both Ibsen and Munch still have a huge following, and in today’s confused and troubled times, they seem more popular than ever.

Rosmersholm – Henrik Ibsen - 1886

“I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.”

“I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him.”

I studied Rosmersholm back in the 90s and thought it was one of the most striking plays I had ever read. I have always been obsessed with horses, and I was fascinated by the idea of white horses being the ghosts of the house of Rosmersholm, whether they be the ghosts of past, present or future, that fear of seeing this mythical beast resonated with me. That sense of foreboding is nothing new, think of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (The white horse, the red horse, the black horse, the pale horse.)

These ghosts of foreboding
are not just held in the Book of Revelation, think about the foamy, white breaking waves on rough seas…the White Horses. They can lay claim to a person, like the trolls of Norwegian folklore, which cling to vessels to steer them on a different path…as Rebecca West described herself in Ibsen’s original text, she was the lady from the sea (coincidentally the title of Ibsen’s next play.) I found this mixture of folklore and the acts of politics and the press controlling a person rather fascinating. Rosmersholm was Ibsen’s most pivotal play, it spoke to me on so many levels, yet it wasn’t a popular play to be performed on stage. You can probably imagine my delight at not only seeing the pages of this play finally brought to life on a West End stage, but the added bonus of Tom Burke cast as Rosmer was just beyond belief.

I have often wondered why this play has not been more popular, past performances have rarely been well received. I spoke to Tom after the show and asked him if his father had said anything about the 1973 performance at the Greenwich Theatre whereby Jeremy Brett (who was to be Sherlock Holmes to Tom's dad's Watson!) took on the role of John Rosmer. Tom said he'd have to ask his dad about that...he asked if it had Claire Bloom in it...I couldn't remember but having checked my old textbook (dear God how sad do I sound) Joan Plowright took the role of Rebecca West. (I know I’ll forget to tell Tom if I see him again, but someone can always enlighten him if they feel the need.) I suspect it was probably not something that ever came up in conversation between Brett and Burke Snr though…who would bother to talk about appearing in Rosmersholm?!

Now I mentioned earlier that this was a pivotal play in Ibsen’s career. Whilst politics and the state of the country remained a large theme of the play, Ibsen had started to concentrate on the effects that power and influence had over individuals rather than just political power. The Press were powerful in manipulating public thought and swaying their judgement about people; whether they disclosed the whole truth was another matter. Bearing in mind this play was written in 1886, if we look at today’s tabloids very little has changed…although I suspect the vile and immoral actions of our media has actually got worse. You only need to look at the recent headlines surrounding the Royal Family to see how much they try to sway public opinion, how they hound people and publicly shame them.

As a society we never seem to learn. We seem to have lost our independent voice, we allow ourselves to be manipulated by those in charge of us, and the media is in charge of us. It sways our thoughts; most of us being too bone idle to seek out the truth for ourselves. We only need to look at complaints about Brexit that have formulated over the last few years…people whining “we weren’t told this” “we never expected that” and you realise that all around you, folk have been far too content to lap up whatever tripe has been written in the Daily Mail and other equally odious publications to just go with the flow. Folk forget that the media has become the puppet master whilst both the public and politicians have become their play things.

Interestingly it has always been the character of Rebecca who has been described as the manipulator, her powers of persuasion encouraging the pastor to lose faith and change political ideals. What it is important to note is that Rebecca is not this grand femme fatale, she does not tell lies to gain what she wants, she merely deviates from the truth for a large part of Ibsen’s play! But what is noticeable in Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation is that Rebecca has a voice, she has strong beliefs and she is not going to be silenced, not by the church, the papers or the people around her. She is Ibsen’s great heroine, a free thinker who believes in herself, a woman with a voice who is prepared to use it to set other women free.

Photo via @RosmersholmPlay - Twitter
In understanding Rosmersholm, it is worth noting a brief chronology of Ibsen’s life. He was born in Norway in 1828. In 1850 he moved to Oslo and wrote his second play, The Warrior’s Barrow, moving a year later to Bergen to work at the newly created National Theatre. Following a series of dramatic failures in Bergen, Ibsen faced many years of poverty and lost confidence in his writing. In 1864 he finally found success with the historical tragedy The Pretenders and moved to live in Rome for 27 years. He moved to Germany in 1868 and returned briefly to Norway in 1874 but went back to Germany in 1875 and wrote the first of what is considered his twelve great dramas.

He resettled in Italy in 1880 paying a visit back to his homeland in 1885 before moving back to Munich in 1886 where he wrote Rosmersholm. The trip back to his homeland in 1885 caused him much anguish. He remarked how he had felt like a foreigner in his own home. There had been large scale political battles before his arrival, leaving what amounted to bitterness and fanaticism. He was affected by seeing people refusing to partake in rational discussions, preferring instead to throw close friendships aside in favour of keeping up their principles. People who had been close friends and allies were now bitter enemies such was their overwhelming difference of political opinion. And so back in Norway, the seeds of Rosmersholm were sown.

In a speech Ibsen delivered in Trondeim, Norway, he declared:

“There is still much to be done in this country before we can be said to have achieved full freedom. But our present democracy scarcely has the power to accomplish that task. An element of nobility must enter into our political life, our government, our members of parliament and our press. I am of course not thinking of nobility of wealth, of learning, or even of ability or talent. I am thinking of nobility of character, of mind and of will. That alone can make us free. And this nobility, which I hope may be granted to our people, will come to us from two sources, the only two sections of society which have not as yet been corrupted by party pressure. It will come to us from our women and our working men. “

The first draft of Ibsen’s play was entitled White Horses, in his notes he described the play thus:

He, the refined, aristocratic character, who has changed to a liberal viewpoint and has been ostracised by all his former friends and acquaintances. A widower: has been unhappily married to a half-mad melancholic, who ended by drowning herself.

She, the governess of his two daughters, emancipated, hot-blooded, somewhat ruthless beneath a refined exterior is regarded by their acquaintances as the evil spirit of the house; an object of suspicion and gossip.

Eldest daughter; is in danger of succumbing to inactivity and loneliness. She has rich talents which are lying unused.

Younger daughter; sharply observant; passions beginning to dawn.

The journalist; genius, tramp.

In June 1886, Ibsen scrapped his previous drafts, renamed his play Rosmersholm and wrote the version we essentially know and read today. He made some interesting changes, Rebecca arrived from the district of Finnmark, a place in the north of Norway renowned for its sea trolls and magic. Indeed, Rebecca refers to herself as a sea troll, but rather than clinging onto a boat and hindering its voyage, she clings to Rosmer, helping to sway his thoughts to such an extent that their potentially happy future is destroyed by the powerful events of their past lives.

Photo via @RosmersholmPlay - Twitter
This play relies so heavily on the principal actors playing Rosmer and Rebecca to succeed and in casting Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke as Rebecca and Rosmer this production hits the nail on the head. If the audience doesn’t believe that Rebecca is a truly passionate woman, or that Rosmer is not a passionate man, then the ending makes no sense whatsoever. We shouldn’t only focus on whether Rebecca is manipulative, or that Rosmer is indecisive of both his religious and political feelings, we need to focus on their human nature.

“Rebecca’s manner must on no account carry any hint of imperiousness or masculinity. She does not force Rosmer forward. She lures him. A controlled power, a quiet determination, are of the essence of her character.” “No declamation. No theatricalities. No grand mannerisms! Express every mood in a manner that will seem credible and natural…Observe the life that is going on around you, and present a real and living human being.” Henrik Ibsen

From the opening scene, we can already see the fresh approach that Duncan Macmillan has applied to this play. Rebecca throws open the windows of this dark, brooding mansion to let light back into a house that has been shrouded in despair and misery. This is not the Rebecca of the book, sitting quietly crocheting in her chair until the master arrives home, this is a masterly Rebecca, and one which I believe Ibsen would be proud of.

Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation feels like he’s taken Ibsen and sprinkled him in fairy dust!

Thankfully I am not a devout purist when it comes to plays, I’m too open-minded for that! I’ve seen re-imaginings of Shakespeare and Chekhov that have been far better than the originals. I don’t want to sit in a theatre with a scholastic head on…I can sit and pull it apart later if I feel I need to. I like my plays to speak to me, I want to be enthralled, I want to be there sharing the feelings of the audience and the actors on stage. This production does that; it far usurps the play text I read all those years ago.

Duncan Macmillan has taken Ibsen and sprinkled it in fairy dust to come up with a far more energised and enthralling play. The characters talk over each other as in real life, and due to the artistry of the set and lighting, it felt like I was watching Ibsen, just so much better! Rebecca is not the lady of the house, she is not married or intimate with Rosmer, yet she feels comfortable enough to command that the dining hall should be used once more. The shutters should come down, the covers from the paintings removed…life should be restored to this once grand house. This is a woman of substance, a woman of independent mind who is not scared to use her voice, or her power of influence. Back in Ibsen’s time this would be frowned upon, but these clever tweaks to the text have made this play, written in 1886 seem so fresh and part of the 21st century.

Photo via @RosmersholmPlay - Twitter
Rebecca is a complex character and Hayley Atwell personifies her beautifully, it was as if the role had been written for her! Her impassioned speech at the end both shows she realised the importance of Ulrik Brendel, and how she hadn’t wanted to manipulate Rosmer, but wanted to awaken his own thoughts and ideas and give them life.

Tom Burke, who played Athos in BBC’s The Musketeers, another character famous for losing his faith, who “smiles but never laughs” and a man conflicted by his feelings over a woman, was the perfect casting for John Rosmer, a former pastor who has lost his faith, living in a house devoid of all emotion, with conflicted feelings for a woman! I’m not wishing to typecast him, but he is incredibly adept at getting into the soul of a damaged person and bringing it forth to his audience. He presents a real, living human being to the stage, one wracked with confusion and doubt, who can sympathise with the world at large, yet not sure how he can help it.

Children never cry at Rosmersholm yet when they grow up they never laugh. It’s like a plague stretching throughout the community.  

Photo via @RosmersholmPlay - Twitter
My heart broke for Rosmer towards the end of the play as Tom stood and plaintively cried “I want my God back.” “I have nothing. You’ve taken everything from me.” He had not only lost his identity but his faith in everything, and how can you live without faith in something, whether that be religion, politics, society or general human nature…you need to put your faith in something, if not chaos and despair surrounds you.

Within the play, there is an election looming and the country is on the brink. This play could not come at a more appropriate time! Divisions over Brexit, divisions within political parties, divisions within families over whether they are “in” or “out” we as a nation are asking the same questions now as Ibsen was asking in 1886! In some respects, it’s demoralising that we still don’t have the answers, but it’s interesting that we are still trying to find a way through the maze of complicated questions to secure our futures.

Krull has not seen his brother-in-law for a year, and he now arrives at the grand house, a house full of heritage, where the portraits of the dead and influential hang from the walls, and he finds the master of the house having a crisis of confidence, of his faith, his politics, his ideological view on everything; he is a different person completely to the man Krull knew as the husband of his late sister. Krull wants to bring him back to his senses and away from the sweeping radical nature of the country and back to his heritage and the family name.    

Photo via @RosmersholmPlay - Twitter
I can’t say I thought much of Professor Kroll in the text I read. He seemed rather bullish and I didn’t warm to him at all, however, Giles Terera has given this character a complete overhaul. Kroll is now a powerful figure full of morals who is openly struggling to comprehend the changing political climate. His wife and children oppose him, and now it seems his friend and brother-in-law Rosmer is feeling the same as them. You can see the intensity of his struggle to reconcile his friendship with Rosmer, something I felt that Ibsen didn’t quite manage to capture in his text.

“Live quietly and die with secrets” Krull

It seems a difficult thing to comprehend in modern society, when people for whatever reason feel the need to impart every moment of their lives on social media. “I’ve had a yoghurt for breakfast,” “I’m in MacDonald’s,” “I’ve just been to the toilet!” Hmmm, yeah that’s probably one Tweet too many!!

I think as each day passes, I’m more inclined to follow Kroll’s approach to life. Yes, I know I’m on social media, I write this blog because I like to share experiences of theatre visits, good books, the best tea to drink…I like sharing stuff that I think will be of interest to people, but there are plenty of things I will take to my grave which I deem to be my business and no-one else’s. I think that is something a lot of generations need to start considering whilst living in this greenhouse of a world…a world where everyone aspires to be a celebrity, rather than being content with just being themselves. These days we have far more platforms to allow our voices to be heard than in Rebecca West’s day…we should use these opportunities for the common good, use our voices for those who do not have a voice or cannot be heard…and for the rest of the time, take Krull’s advice!

This is an unmissable production. I want to watch it night after night…

I absolutely loved watching this play, so much so I want to watch it night after night, however, if I was able to do that, I feel the play would lose its magic. Every twist and turn would become expected. Every nuanced reply would become just another line; and that would be such a disservice to the characters and the actors bringing them to life. And the ending?! Well the magic and drama of the ending would just be washed away if you watched it time and time again...and as it was so shocking and atmospheric and such a talking point afterwards, you would never be able to replicate that feeling.

That said, if I give it a few weeks, I’m sure I could happily enjoy a second helping!!

Despite its serious themes, this is a joyful play filled with subtle humour and warmth. It has a very strong cast who illuminate their characters and the play has been adapted with such care and compassion to Ibsen’s original text that it is a shame the play is limited viewing to only those who can make it to London. There is nothing like the feeling of live theatre, but when I see some of the plays that NT Live have screened, I think it is a lost opportunity not screening this one…unless of course there is the opportunity to take in on tour overseas for the non-UK based fans!

I don't normally give out star ratings as I see myself as a keen theatre goer rather than formal reviewer...but on this occassion Rosmersholm has to be given ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️(with just maybe an extra ⭐️ or 2 for Tom! 😉)

Rosmersholm runs at The Duke of York's Theatre, London, 24th April to 20th July 2019.