Rosmersholm at the Duke of York Theatre: Hayley Atwell stuns in a wonderful production

The promotional photo for Ian Rickson’s production of Rosmersholm was taken underwater. In the image, a couple embrace. While his eyes are averted, uncertain, she gazes at him like a siren at Odysseus. The question that Henrik Ibsen’s play poses, and to which Rickson’s stellar cast gives heartbreaking urgency, is whether this beautiful mermaid leads the man to watery doom, or salvation. 

The action opens in a time of upheaval. National elections are but a day away in Norway, and Governor Kroll (Giles Terera) has come to visit his brother-in-law, nobleman and former pastor John Rosmer (Tom Burke). A year-and-a-day has passed since Mrs. Rosmer’s death by suicide, and free-spirited housekeeper Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell) is throwing open the doors to the dead woman’s drawing room; life must be allowed in once more. It is not only the house that is awakening, however. Under Rebecca’s tutelage, Rosmer has also come alive, embracing the era’s secularism and radical politics. Trouble is brewing in conservative Rosmersholm.

The company of Rosmersholm

Ibsen is wonderfully dense. Having seen a number of productions recently that can best be described as “content-lite,” Rosmersholm reminds me why realist nineteenth-century plays continue to resonate: energetic plots and characters who are human, complex, and freighted with tragic backstories. Burke is excellent as the conflicted Rosmer, whose bland, man-of-God exterior belies the turmoil within. He tells Rebecca, “I was born middle-aged.” Discovering his true self is a destabilizing, sometimes violent, process. Terera’s Kroll is similarly engaging, an immovable conservative talking over all who disagree with him; he is a political thinker of the “No-Shades-of-Grey” school.

Hayley Atwell in Rosmersholm

Ultimately, however, the stage belongs to Atwell. Her Rebecca is both a luminous, might-be witch and enchantress, and a political firebrand. Atwell makes the claustrophobia of the disenfranchised female intellect palpable. “All I want,” she cries, “is control over my own mind and my own body.” The declaration feels both timeless, and painfully contemporary. 

The topicality of Ibsen’s work is startling. Rosmer’s desperate desire to foster nobility in public life, in the face of sectarian anger, mirrors many commentators’ wish to restore civility to political discourse in the Trumpian-Brexit age. As in our time, the role of the press is significant, and contested. “I know what I saw,” declares servant Mrs. Helseth (Lucy Briers), “but have you seen what’s in the papers?!” 

Rae Smith’s set design warrants special mention. As the play begins, dust motes float in the slivers of sunlight that penetrate the window shutters in the dead woman’s cavernous room. The furnishings dwarf the inhabitants, and generations of Rosmers—“The children never cry, and the adults never laugh”—glower down from portraits on the walls. Despite Rebecca’s efforts to clear away the detritus and open the windows, the space remains a mausoleum. The set is like a character with whom the players are in constant dialogue, and it renders visible the family legacy against whose dictates Rosmer struggles. 

There is something of Henry James—in a good way—in Ibsen. For all their action and incident, his plays are still most interested in our processes of thought, and the struggle to understand and reform our minds. Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s Theatre makes that thinking by turns shocking, invigorating, and tragic.


Rosmersholm is at the Duke of York Theatre until the 20th July, 2019.

Photograph: Johan Persson.

Sarah Gibbs is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in English Literature at University College London (UCL). Her writing has appeared in Descant, Filling Station, and Novelty magazines.

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