Going into this, I’d actually never even heard of Rosmersholm. I know some of Ibsen’s other plays, just not this one. In some sense, I suppose the similarities are fairly straightforward: the narrative of a young woman stuck in a world that she doesn’t fit into threads through much of Ibsen’s work, but the tone here feels subtly different. Perhaps it comes down to translation, but the rage so often present in Ibsen’s plays is less obvious here, although Hayley Atwell brings all the fire that the script doesn’t provide for her.
At first, I am more than a little confused about how physically – not to mention mentally – insecure Rebecca (Hayley Atwell) seems to be. Her physicality often leads her to seem somehow detached or ethereal, despite the conviction and power of her opinions. There is an uncertainty present in her physical form that her words don’t give voice to, but as the circumstances of her life become clearer, this comes to make so much more sense. She’s not really rooted in the same way the other characters are. She doesn’t have the foundations of money or ancestry or religion, and that’s a constant strain in a world built almost solely on those traits.
It’s interesting to me that all of the main points of action actually take place out of offstage. There’s a hoard of deaths, denunciations, elections, and affairs, but all of this somehow seems to exist outside of the inner sanctum of the Rosmers’ ancestral property. That is, until the incredible last moments of the entire play. The fast-moving tide of river water brings with it two things: the no longer diluted horror of the outside world, and absolute knowledge of what has taken place. Until this point, everything outside of the house’s walls seems vague or hypothetical enough that it almost feels like fiction. With that shift, that choice to bring the outside in, the world lays back claim to Rosmersholm.
Perhaps there’s something predetermined about the play’s end. The white horse keeps appearing, the painted eyes of the dead stare down and the water wheel keeps turning. The world continues, and so its patterns must continue with it. For all the characters’ effort to determine their own fate and stand by their own convictions, it’s more like they are parts of a puzzle that they can’t see. Actions lead to consequences, but those consequences are barely possible to conceive, let alone predict.
Finally, that set. It is so beautiful. The actors could go home, I would happily stare at it for several hours. Neil Austin’s lighting is genuinely exquisite, and little touches like having an outside breeze move the curtains when the window is open move me on a spiritual level.
Interestingly, much of the talk of politics and the media feels so familiar to today that it’s almost heavy-handed – or it would be if these weren’t the sentiments that Ibsen expressed all those years ago. The phrases are all the same. It’s not lost on the play’s audience, who never fail to laugh knowingly at anything that may, however faintly, allude to Brexit.
So, while there are moments and lines which feel slightly jarring or out of place, Rosmersholm is really enjoyable. It’s visually epic and shamelessly so. It may rely on this a shade too much, but it can afford to. The cinematic world that the play exists in is beautiful and alluring, befitting the story and its characters.
Rosmersholm is playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 20 July. For more information and tickets, visit Rosmersholm‘s website.