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Pillars of the Community review at Lyttelton National Theatre London

Though it tends to veer towards the melodramatic near the end, Pillars of the Community, better known perhaps as Pillars of Society, proves to be well worthy of a revival, especially as Samuel Adamson’s new version manages to overcome the difficulties that have caused it to be one of Ibsen’s less performed plays.

It has several themes, the main one in the opening act being the status of women in 19th century Norwegian society. It then moves into a study of the megalomania of the greedy and duplicitous Karsten Bernick. Finally, it turns into a kind of suspense drama, when Bernick’s young son stows away aboard a rust bucket of a ship, which the would-be pillar is knowingly sending towards almost certain doom.

It actually has a few resonances with certain events which have taken place recently, and shows that Bernick is not only unscrupulous in his business dealings but in his personal life as well, as the woman he has betrayed returns to act as his conscience in a situation that could harm an entire community.

Marianne Elliott gives the play a searingly effective production in Rae Smith’s single setting, which manages to also convey the adjoining rooms and the exterior of Bernick’s house.

Though some might think that Damian Lewis looks too young and clean-cut for the ruthless central figure, he gives a finely-judged performance, never better than in the final scene when, although unmasked, he still contrives to persuade the community that he is the best man to develop the town.

But there is strength all round, with Lesley Manville outstanding as the ill-used Lona Hessel, Joseph Millson as Bernick’s brother-in-law, another victim of his scheming, Brid Brennan as the sister and Geraldine Alexander playing the neglected wife. This is a play which has received a new lease of life.

Production Information

Lyttelton, National Theatre, London, November 1-February 4

Henrik Ibsen, new version by Samuel Adamson
Marianne Elliott
National Theatre
Cast includes
Damian Lewis, Lesley Manville, Joseph Millson
Running time
2hrs 50mins

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