The suffocating weight of dead generations looms over Henrik Ibsen’s 1886 political drama, in which Rosmer, an enlightened young aristocrat, defies his upper class status and risks alienation to pursue his newfound socialist ideals.
Quite literally, the portraits of his ancestors hang over the stage like silent accusers, revealed in a flourish by his companion Rebecca, the heroine of the piece, as she pulls off their dust covers and defiantly restores the manor’s sitting room to its former glory. Rosmersholm is emerging from a state of grief, one year since the lady of the house threw herself in the river, where her body jammed the manor’s water wheel and flooded the house. “It’s time for Rosmersholm to move forward, back to how things were,” insists Rebecca with a hint of unintended irony.
Like many of Ibsen’s plays, Rosmersholm deals with the weight of history, but here it’s the equally forceful pull of the future that creates paralysis and conflict. Pastor Rosmer’s standing in the community as a moral leader makes him a desirable poster child for both the right and left, but when the tabloid press becomes weaponised against him he becomes the subject of scandal, stripped of the status he was so willing to forfeit and now trapped between the budding idealism before him and the conservative roots that took him to where he is.
It’s an emotional and twisting story, brilliantly told in this new production. Over one of Rosmer’s shoulders is his friend and brother-in-law Kroll, the righteous, plum-mouthed local governor who transforms with the news that Rosmer is a political turncoat, switching from close ally to spurned enemy almost at the snap of a finger. On the other is his confidante Rebecca, a progressive upstart and social climber who shares and guides his new views, while harbouring some secrets of her own. There’s a disgraced newspaper editor who may be out for revenge, a radical old leftist mentor who returns from obscurity to tell everybody what’s what. Ibsen’s play chucks a whole lot of players on to the stage, and its testament to this adaptation that everybody has room to play their part.
This is Ibsen’s greatest thriller, juggling themes of cultural rage and democratic injustices in one hand, and violent personal tragedies in the other. Throw in frustration with government and some enthusiastic criticism of the partisanship of print media, and it sadly feels like it could have been written yesterday.