It is a mark of the endless fascination of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm that even as the characters move towards the truth of things, so the atmosphere becomes cloudier with fear and apprehension. What exactly are the white horses on the horizon? Why are Rosmer, the newly widowed former priest, and Rebecca West, his housekeeper, drawn towards the abyss?
Anthony Page’s production of Mike Poulton’s new version has a quiet, hypnotic power but is deficient in one crucial respect: Paul Hilton as Rosmer and Helen McCrory as Rebecca, while playing with a scrubbed and fearsome integrity, do not, in Bernard Shaw’s phrase, “sustain the deep black flood of feeling from the first moment to the last.”
The psychological crisis is perpetrated by several factors: Rosmer, the last of a great dynasty in the community whose wife Beata has committed suicide in the rushing waters of the mill race, is converting to revolutionary socialism; Rebecca may have caused the suicide by hinting that she was pregnant by Rosmer; and she herself is traumatised by discovering that she unwittingly slept with her own father.
You can see why this was Freud’s favourite of all Ibsen’s plays. The couple are denounced by the upright Kroll (Malcolm Sinclair), Beata’s brother, as aetheistic free-thinkers. And the cost of progress and liberation can be seen in the sad state of Ulrik Brendel (Paul Moriarty), Rosmer’s old tutor, who “went north and became an actor” and is now a drunken pauper planning a series of public lectures.
Then there is the newspaper editor Mortensgaard (Peter Sullivan) who is tortured by the rumours he himself perpetrates while warning that “immorality” can become a serious liability. The acting wattage is a little low in some of these scenes. Hilton is a mesmerising actor but he is very turned in on himself. And McCrory’s hauntedness is rather overstated in her mad woman’s wig, which doesn’t really fit the shape of her face.
Hildegard Bechtler has designed an imposing living room, coloured in greys and greens, which has family portraits along one wall and a window in the other through which Peter Mumford’s evocative lighting suggests both the time of day and the mist-laden landscape. Veronica Quilligan’s bustling Mrs Helseth represents the everyday normality to which Ibsen’s tragic lovers, possessed by demons, can never aspire. But, in this performance, their fate remains more mystical than heart-breaking.