Duke of York’s Theatre, London, Saturday 13th July, 2019
Duncan Macmillan’s new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1886 play is flooded with pertinence. Never mind nineteenth century Norway, many of the lines come across as direct commentary on the state of our nation today, eliciting wry laughter from the audience. Ibsen-Macmillan make satirical quips, mainly through the mouthpiece of Kroll, a conservative, while sending up that character too. The public, we are told, vote for feelings not for facts – which accounts for the current mess we’re mired in.
As with all Ibsen, it’s the characters’ personal problems that bring about their downfall. Dark events in their past always surface and take their toll. In this one, it’s a year since the suicide (by drowning) of John Rosmer’s wife. Rae Smith’s elegant, stately set bears the marks of flood damage caused by her body clogging the watermill, the stains as much as a spectre as the memory of the act itself. Proceedings are beautifully lit by Neil Austin, with daylight starkly streaming through the windows, and lamplight dimly glowing on the murky ancestral portraits that glare down on events.
Tom Burke strikes a plaintive note as widower John Rosmer. Having lost his faith, he is torn between opposing factions in the upcoming general election, both of which see his pastorhood (if that’s a word) as a vindication of their stance… Burke shows strength in his grief, even if his Hamlet-like indecisiveness causes him to waiver and dither. Rosmer is clearly in the thrall of his late wife’s best mate and erstwhile nurse, Rebecca West, a thoroughly modern young woman, clawing her way up from nothing and asserting both her independence and her will. As Rebecca, Hayley Atwell is a Marvel (pun intended). The former Agent Carter from the Captain America films gives a sparky performance – we like her immediately, and when the Truth comes to light, and she makes impassioned defences of her questionable actions, we admire her, even if we don’t agree with her. It’s easy to see how Rosmer is enchanted.
Giles Terera is nothing short of superb as sardonic Governor Kroll. Assured to the point of smarminess, he makes witty observations that mask his ruthlessness and objectionable politics. There is sterling support from Lucy Briers as housekeeper Mrs Helseth, and Peter Wight puts in a memorable turn as bedraggled radical Ulrik Brendel, more like a homeless Michael Foot than a Jeremy Corbyn. Finally, Jake Fairdbrother’s tabloid newspaper editor Peter Mortensgaard makes a brief but effective appearance. The play has no love for newspaper owners nor those who believe what they read in the papers – again, the prescience of the piece is uncanny. Or perhaps it’s just dismaying to note that society has not moved on in a century, people have not improved – and it’s the same the whole world over.
A stunning production with more laughs than you might expect, culminating in personal tragedy, the net having tightened around the characters until they feel they have no other option. The final moment is brilliantly realised. Perhaps director Ian Rickson is also addressing global issues here. Unless we radically change our ways, we will very soon find ourselves in deep water.