Henrik Ibsen, Rosmersholm, Almeida Theatre, Islington

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Paul Hilton and Helen McCrory in Rosmersholm. Photo Johan Persson

Paul Hilton and Helen McCrory in Rosmersholm. Photo Johan Persson

Henrik Ibsen, Rosmersholm
Almeida Theatre, Islington
July 4,2008

Paul Hilton – Johannes Rosmer
Helen McCrory – Rebecca West
Paul Moriarty – Ulrik Brendel
Veronica Quilligan – Mrs Helseth
Malcolm Sinclair – Doctor Kroll
Peter Sullivan – Peder Mortensgaard

Far from celebrating our independence day, the British are probably trying to forget America and the whole era when Tony Blair was Bush’s poodle. After a miserably cold, damp spring, there was a national scare over strawberries – specifically, that the crop would go moldy and rot in the fields. Strawberries and cream are de rigeurfor finals at Wimbledon. Now it’s finals weekend and the berries came through. But there’s a smell of black mold seeping out under the doors of the tiny Almeida Theatre in Islington. Ibsen is afoot, and the fate of souls is being tossed around on stage like a medicine ball. A very heavy medicine ball.

Any humorous moment in an Ibsen play (Peer Gynt aside) is unthinkable, but part of the audience squeezed a wincing chuckle or two out of Rosmersholm, which I attended at the Almeida last night.Faint mirth was occasioned by references to women keeping quiet as they should. Ibsen put these remarks in the mouth of a ham-fisted reactionary, of course. The playwrighthimself remains an icon ofsocial liberation, and Rosmersholm begins on a note of high liberal triumph.We are in rural Norway. The local great man, Johannes Rosmer, basks in the light of freedom: he has just given up the church, all its suffocating beliefs, and his role as a priest. The inciting reason is Rebecca West, a young woman who arrived in the house to take care of Rosmer’s invalid wife. Rebecca lingers there after the wife’s tragic suicide, spreading light where darkness once reigned.

“Light” is the dominant metaphor in Ibsen’s text, replacing “ducK” and “ghost” in two better known plays. Used first in a spirit of personal awakening, the light twists and turns until it winds up as tragic irony, a burning laser that intensifies shame, guilt, andillicit passion. In the end the light has bleached Rosmer and Rebecca down to shivering bone, and they have no escape but a double suicide.Grim stuff.

Rosmersholm can’t compete with the most compelling Ibsen, despite the claim by the Almeida’s P.R. department that this is Ibsen’s masterpiece.For one thing, it echoes material from An Enemy of the People (Rosmer’s apostasy infuriates the local puritans) and especially Hedda Gabler (Rebecca West is a femme fatale hiding dark secrets). The two lead characters are arguably the most difficult to carry off in the entire Ibsen canon.Rosmer mustconvince us that he is first a naive idealist, second a man of high honor, and third a half-demented romantic hurling himself into the jaws of fate. One needs a George C. Scott or Max von Sydow in the role, a personality so outsized that all these personas are contained inside, ready to erupt volcanically, from the outset.

Paul Hilton isn’t sitting on a volcano. In fact, his Rosmer is so insistently kind, reasonable, and naive that when he erupts in the final scene, you wonder if he snorted crystal meth during the intermission.This one-dimensionality is well played – as are all the parts in the Almeida production – but Hilton lacked even a hint of subterranean emotion, and so a simple turnabout like Rosmer’s impetuous proposal to Rebecca felt as forced as pleading undying love to a stranger at a bus stop.

But Rosmer isn’t the linchpin of the drama. Ibsen works hard shuttling the loom of symbolism, trying to make Rosmersholm, the ancestral manse whose walls are adorned with gloomy portraits, into a haunting presence.The audience chuckled at the portrait gallery,however – maybe they thought they were attending Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore. There’s also a white horse, never seen, to serve as the spectre of family guilt. But the only viable focus for our feelings is Rebecca West.She is a creature of shame and deceit, with a powerful suggestion of incest in her unspeakable past, who passes herself off as a woman who cares for nothing but the dawn of a new future.

Helen McCrory possesses some of the stuff that would make a terrifying Rebecca. She prowls Rosmersholm in a smoldering silence. She can hector at the drop of a hat, moving from a whisper to a howl so fast that you jump in your seat. But as with her Rosmer, McCrory can’t make the final scene, where Rebecca’s idealism crumbles in shame and suicide, seem inevitable. Who could? The part is as difficult as Hedda Gabler but with half the payoff. Modern audiences are long past caring about anybody’s struggle with Calvinism.Rebecca’s existential contortions aren’t so much a tornado as a dust devil. Outside the suffocating walls of Rosmersholm the crowds of young Londoners strolled Upper Street, Islington, in happy contemplation of strawberries and cream. A little moldy stink wafting their way was…no never mind.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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