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Rosmersholm

by on 23 February 2019

Exit, Norwegian Style

Rosmersholm

by Henrik Ibsen, in a version by Paul Collins

The Questors at Questors Studio, Ealing until 2nd March

A review by Matthew Grierson

It’s easy to see what makes Rosmersholm a tempting proposition for a contemporary production: mental health, sexual politics, the influence of the press and, most significantly, a sudden polarisation of conservatives and liberals; all make for topical concerns. But the play maps modernity onto the late 19th century as awkwardly as the portraits of ‘the clan of Rosmer’ across the back of the set are Photoshopped to show the face of Paul James as Johannes, the last of the line.

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Elsewhere, design and lighting manage not to draw so much attention to themselves, placing us in the present day without going for the obvious Ikea and low-angled sunshine one might expect. However, the version of Ibsen’s text by Paul Collins, who directs, seems not to have been translated into English so much as cliché, such is the abundance of hackneyed phrases. If he’d wanted to be as daring as the political context allows, the dialogue could have been livelier than this; as it is, the cast are lumbered with such clunkers as ‘That fact is inescapable and I can never escape it.’

Indeed, it’s with such killer lines as ‘Ours is a friendship without passion’ and ‘I won’t go through life with a corpse on my back’ that Rosmer attempts to woo cohabitee Rebecca West (Veronika Smit), although it’s not clear whether these are expressions of the former pastor’s emotional tone-deafness or simply ham-fisted transpositions into English. One wouldn’t blame a woman for turning him down on the strength of this. But when Rosmer does propose, Rebecca’s glee is immediately evident – and then abruptly rescinded, in a technically accomplished expression of some questionable direction. The plot both helps and hinders in navigating the sexual dynamics of the pair. Whatever shame would have attached to their domestic arrangements 130 years ago is entirely lost in the production’s modernised setting. However, the relationship is – fortuitously – recontextualised with the revelation that Rebecca is haunted by the suicide of Beata, Rosmer’s previous wife, and this restores some comprehensibility to their anguish.

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Exchanges between the pair feel among the truest of the evening, with James and especially Smit conveying strength and depth of feeling, and the concluding scene has a crackle that the rest of the play largely lacks. Sadly these heartfelt moments are fleeting, lightning out of a clear sky that is just as suddenly gone and, having hit emotional paydirt, Rosmer and Rebecca leave the stage to their own deaths as stiffly as robots. The peculiar decision to introduce a voiceover of maid Therese (Catherine Day)’s thoughts at this point – characters have spoken their brains directly throughout the preceding two long hours – makes the climax still more muted.

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Turns on an emotional sixpence (that’s about 0.3 krone) are so typical of the performance that it’s difficult to tell whether this is a function of the unmodulated dialogue or whether, as one suspects in a few cases, the acting is just stilted. So often are characters stood facing off against each other with their arms clamped to their sides that one expects them – longs for them – to break into Riverdance. Instead, each sustains one note until such time as they are called on to do otherwise, the resultant effect not unlike a wrenching, Eurovision-style key change. When someone opines ‘Now I’ve lost the power to act’, one is inclined to agree.

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What contributes to the production’s absence of affect is that nothing is as telling about the characters than what we are told. Then told once more. Then told again. Act 1 scene 1 in fact is so lumbered with exposition – signalled by that cringeworthy tag ‘as you know’ – one wonders whether a more daring director might not resorted to a ‘Previously, on Rosmersholm …’ to make the piece a truly present-day Scandi-noir. Occasionally, the mannered quality can be exploited to effect, as when glances between Rosmer and Rebecca counterpoint their polite dialogue to show what they really feel about the presence of Ulric Brendel (Iain Reid). But the play can still largely be described as people standing awkwardly, trolling each other’s politics and throwing shade – like Twitter, only more protracted.

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To be fair, the modern parallels are entirely without merit. Derek Stoddart as prudish principal Magnus Kroll and Martin Halvey as hack Peter Mortensgaard are never more believable than when they’re conniving to spin Rosmer’s private life or radical inclinations for their own gain. But in order to accept this messaging, we have to live both in the present of social media – at the start of act 2 Rosmer is on his laptop as if to say ‘Look! It’s 2019!’ – and in the glory days of the press, with so much hinging on which of two local papers finds the former pastor in favour.

The physical appearance of one of these rags as a prop prompts similar cognitive dissonance, as, like the portraits, it represents painstaking design work on computer. Likewise, a jarring reference to ‘DNA’ is thrown in at one point, but is simply used as a 21st century shorthand for the play’s preoccupation with inheritance – all those meaningful looks at the ancestral wall – when it could have been an opportunity to interrogate the significance of both concepts.

The problem is that the production keeps insisting on its significance while rarely making one feel it. The only thing one can be thankful for is that the political allegory is not as laboured as the rest of the production. Goodness knows, it would have had plenty to go on right now.

Matthew Grierson
February 2019

Photography by Jane Arnold-Forster

From → Drama, Reviews

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