Rosmersholm review – Atwell and Burke are breathtaking in Ibsen masterpiece

Impulsiveness and frustration … Hayley Atwell. Photograph : Johan Persson

Duncan Macmillan’s deft but daring tweaks underline the majesty of this sexually charged study of faith and heartbreak

This has been dubbed Ibsen’s darkest and most complex play. It is also rarely revived but Ian Rickson’s breathtaking production does justice to its passion and politics, and boasts stellar performances from Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke. They richly deliver on Shaw’s notion of “the deep black flood of feeling from the first moment to the last”.

Written by Ibsen in 1886, the play has echoes of its immediate predecessors. As in Ghosts, the dead weight of the past is made visible : John Rosmer, a widowed pastor who has lost his faith, is surrounded by portraits of his forebears. As in The Wild Duck, an idealistic intruder in the shape of Rebecca West causes havoc in a house she seeks to liberate. Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation, while respecting Ibsen’s structure, makes vital changes to the original. Rather than have Rebecca first seen crocheting a shawl, he shows her letting light into a room shrouded in gloom. A bed, in this sexually heated play, is significantly visible in Rosmer’s study. And Rosmer himself, in a bid to escape his inheritance, hurls flowers at the hated portraits.


What is Ibsen’s play ultimately about ? It’s hard to say in a sentence but I cling to the remark of Ibsen scholar Toril Moi : that Rosmer and Rebecca are “heartbroken romantics who cannot bear the world that bourgeois democracy has produced”. They are Tristan and Isolde in a political setting – as this production makes abundantly clear. Rosmer’s brother-in-law, Kroll, vividly played by Giles Terera, is a rightwing bigot whose views are disowned by his wife and children. But the left comes off no better. Mortensgaard, in Jake Fairbrother’s chilling performance, is a radical editor who attacks “power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many” but who cynically ditches Rosmer when he realises he is of no use.

Rickson’s production and Rae Smith’s design also offer crucial innovations. One is the presence of servants desperate to enjoy the freedom Rosmer and Rebecca earnestly talk about. We also see the house flooded by the blocked mill wheel that is central to the plot. But it is the lead performances that motor the evening. Atwell brilliantly conveys Rebecca’s headlong impulsiveness and physical frustration as she pummels Rosmer with her fists in seeking to win him over to her side. Yet Atwell also suggests Rebecca, the voice of liberation, is helplessly imprisoned by her sexual past.


Burke plays Rosmer with fierce intelligence as an honourable but lost soul who craves certainty and who is never more moving than when he cries : “I want my God back.” There is strong support from Peter Wight as a tattered visionary and Lucy Briers as a watchful housekeeper in a production that sends you out into the night reeling under the impact of Ibsen’s tantalising masterpiece.

Source : The Guardian du 03/05/2019 par Michael Billington

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A propos de Hayley Atwell, actrice britannique
Hayley Atwell, née le 5 avril 1982 à Londres, Angleterre, est une actrice britannique. Après plusieurs téléfilms, elle obtient son premier rôle au cinéma dans Le Rêve de Cassandre de Woody Allen aux côtés d’Ewan McGregor et Colin Farrell. En 2008, elle apparait dans The Duchess avec Keira Knightley. En (...)
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