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Rosmersholm review at Duke of York’s Theatre, London – ‘Hayley Atwell is superb’

Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke in Rosmersholm at Duke of York's Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Written in 1886, Ibsen’s infrequently revived Rosmersholm is a play of upheaval and change. The house of the Rosmer family becomes the site of a battle between the rule-bound old order and more progressive ways of living and thinking; the personal and the political intertwine.

Still mourning the death of his wife, who took her own life a year ago by drowning herself, Rosmer (Tom Burke), a former pastor and the last of his line, has lost his faith and rejected the traditions and values of his conservative family. This unsettles his uptight, judgmental brother-in-law Kroll (Giles Terera), as does the thought that Rosmer and Rebecca (Hayley Atwell), his wife’s former companion, might be having an improper relationship.

Atwell is superb as the passionate, ambitious, persuasive and complex Rebecca, a woman who knows her own heart and her own mind. She’s not painted as a manipulator, rather a woman making the most of the limited power and influence she has. She radiates intelligence and frustration, to the point that she somewhat overshadows Burke’s guilt-ridden Rosmer. Though he captures the character’s idealism, turmoil and self-questioning nature, his is quite a clipped performance.

Terera is compelling as Kroll. He all but spits the words “liberated woman” when talking about Rebecca, but he also shows us the gradually developing cracks in the character’s moral rigidity. Peter Wight injects levity into his performance as Brendel, Rosmer’s old tutor. His brief scenes liven up an otherwise dour production.

Duncan Macmillan’s lucid adaptation crystalises the play’s themes and underscores its resonance and relevance without hammering these things home. The production is beautifully designed too. Rae Smith’s magnificent set, gorgeously lit by Neil Austin, perfectly captures the faded grandeur of the Rosmer residence, a ghosted home with flaking paintwork and shrouded family portraits on its walls. As the dustsheets are taken down and the portraits revealed, the house gradually fills with life; the room reawakening as shafts of sunlight streak across the floor. Towards the end, as the sun starts to set on Rosmer and Rebecca, the whole stage looks as if it is aflame.

Rosmersholm is a bleak play about people destroyed by systems, political and social, that they cannot escape. The revival can’t help but feel timely in this regard. However, for all the turbulent emotions on display, Ian Rickson’s production feels frustratingly stiff and static. Atwell’s rich, humane performance transcends this, but it remains a rather thinky, talky production. It engages the brain without stirring the heart.

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Hayley Atwell is a superb in a timely revival of Ibsen's resonant play