A man in period dress is throwing some flowers at some paintings which represent his supposed ancestors and I am feeling… something. A little surge of exhilaration that this Ibsen staging hasn’t made me feel so far. Maybe it’s the sight of its title character Rosmer triumphantly casting off the mouldering greatcoat of convention, the one that represents the legacy of his father and father’s father (this isn’t a metaphor, he literally gives away his grandad’s jacket) . Or maybe it’s relief that something is –finally –happening on a stage that’s been the site of endless conversations, and very few actions.
Rosmersholm isn’t staged very often, and it’s easy to see why: weird name, the doomed unsatisfying stasis of its narrative arc, the vaguely Dickensian supernatural flourishes that sit strangely with its hefty debates on politics. The same things make it intriguing. It’s a play where idealism clashes with establishment pragmatism – and it’s also a play where people see white horses, and then die soon after. Director Ian Rickson and adapter Duncan Macmillan resist the temptation to make this into a ghost story, although Rae Smith’s set design and Neil Austin’s lighting combine to haunting effect – those ancestral paintings start out shrouded in black cloth, then glow in artfully concentrated beams of light in a dilapidated room, a dust-covered memorial to a woman who died in mysterious circumstances.
The meat of the play is a battle for the soul of the title character, Rosmer, which was unfortunately wasn’t a soul whose fate I was especially invested in. His wife has died, perhaps driven mad by him, her body clogging the mill that has supplied his family’s wealth for generations. Rebecca West wants to claim him for youth, beauty and proto-socialism. Politician Kroll wants him to uphold the family name. And outside, the townspeople are worried that Rosmer’s relationship with West is more than platonic. The tensions are palpable but they don’t sit well on Tom Burke’s shoulders. I couldn’t feel interested in a mental struggle that barely showed on his face. Ibsen’s created a character that’s basically a cold-blooded, joyless lobster held up by a shell of tradition, and even with these limitations, Burke’s underdeveloped stiffness that never hints at something meatier and stranger underneath. Hayley Atwell, as Rebecca West, fills some of the deficit with a performance that’s warmer and more vulnerable than you might typically expect from the part of this arch schemer. She plays an impoverished woman who gets the political power she craves in the only way she can in this class-ridden, patriarchal society: by stroking a rich man into doing the right thing (in a strictly ladylike way, of course). She’s a self-created thing, and that makes her a fascinating contrast with Rosmer, a man who’s made by his environment, and who crumbles as soon as he starts to try and fight it.
The best bits of Rosmersholm are very, very good. Especially West’s furious will to reshape the world she lives in. And the way that Kroll, wonderfully performed by Giles Terera, unveils layer and layer underneath his initial stilted politeness. But they sit in a play that’s got a fairly straightforward thesis at its heart: young people are idealistic, older and richer people are sustained by and will inevitably maintain the status quo, systems trap and crush the people who live inside them. This moral proposition isn’t really subverted: Rosmer’s break into flower-throwing philanthropy feels hollow and temporary. Instead, Ibsen takes a sideways leap into the supernatural, with a heightened ending that doesn’t quite work here, with this low-chemistry central couple.
You’re not meant to talk about being bored in the theatre, and to be honest I’m enough of a theatre nerd that 95% of the time I’m not, but I did really struggle to keep my focus during parts of Rosmersholm. Perhaps that’s why the story’s more gothic elements are there: to jolt you out of the stasis of this story. Here, they’re underplayed. The cranking sounds and thunderstormy crashes of Gregory Clarke’s sound design feel too quiet and too far away to turn this room into the horrifying place it gradually becomes. And even when it’s darkest night outside, those picturesque sunbeams continue to shine.
Even if I was sometimes frustrated by Rosmersholm, it fascinated me too. I hope another staging comes along soon, one with a more extravagant approach to this story’s equine visions and treacherous mill. If it does, then white horses couldn’t drag me away.
Rosmersholm is on at Duke of York’s Theatre until 20th July. More info and tickets here.