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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Rosmersholm
Duke Of York's Theatre    Spring-Summer 2019

A rarely performed Ibsen play proves to be a vital, engrossing drama in a dream combination of adaptation, direction and performances.

John Rosmer, inheritor of the titular estate, is a pastor who has lost his faith and a member of the establishment who is beginning to question the social status quo.

With an election approaching, conservatives and radicals alike vie for his approval, to borrow the moral power of his name, and both sides threaten to destroy his reputation if need be, to keep the others from benefiting from it.

Meanwhile Rebecca West, the modern free-thinking young woman with whom he doesn't quite realise he is in love, may be manipulating him for her own purposes.

In the course of the play both John and Rebecca admit or discover things about themselves that seem to push them toward hopelessness.

A play that constantly talks about honour, family, tradition and the virtues and responsibilities of the privileged class, with many of its assumptions potentially distasteful to modern sensibilities, could easily sound horribly dated.

But Duncan Macmillan's muscular adaptation gives everything a contemporary and realistic flavour without lapsing into the anachronisms of tone or language that plague so many 'modern' translations.

Indeed, so confident is Macmillan's adaptation that he even allows himself the occasional line that amuses the audience by sounding like currently topical jokes, without breaking the reality.

And Ian Rickson's direction underlines the real passions of the characters, convincing us that the play's moral and political issues really matter to them and thus making them matter to us.

As Rosmer, Tom Burke has the extraordinary task of playing a character who is, let's admit it, a bit of a wimp. Rosmer is at best a small-L liberal, eager to trust everyone's good intentions and to find things to respect in everyone's positions; at worst a ventriloquist's dummy shaped by whoever has most recently spoken to him.

Yet Burke keeps him interesting and worthy of our attention and respect by quietly underplaying a core of gravity and sincerity, in effect showing us the man Rosmer could be if he ever developed a spine.

Hayley Atwell's journey as Rebecca West is in some ways the counterpart, beginning as a confident New Woman and only gradually revealing – or discovering – what, after futile search for a better adjective, we might call her feminine side.

But for me the real acting honours go to Giles Terera as the representative of the old-money moral-high-ground establishment. His character is an Ibsen staple – think of Parson Manners in Ghosts – and could so easily have been either wooden or ridiculous.

But Terera invests him with total commitment to his values and more passion in expressing and defending them than any other character.

Skew the play in a slightly different direction and he could be the hero, and it is very much to the credit of actor Terera and director Rickson that all the character's power comes out without distorting the play.

You may not think that the issues of small town politics more than a century ago, or the fates of these provincial characters, matter to you. But for two and a half hours they will, making this production of Rosmersholm the strongest drama of the year so far.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Rosmersholm - Duke Of York's Theatre 2019
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