Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community hasn’t been professionally done in London since 1977, when the RSC staged it at the Aldwych (which was their West End home) in a production that won Ian McKellen an Olivier (then a SOLT) Award as Best Actor. Now the play’s long overdue return, in a staging that marks the centenary of Ibsen’s death and precedes an Ibsen Festival planned for next year, heralds a major opportunity for another fine actor to return to the stage (after a too-long absence in films and television) to mark out his territory as a galvanising leading man, and may yet mark his card for an Olivier, too.
That actor is Damian Lewis, and the role is Karsten Bernick, a hugely successful entrepreneur in a Norwegian seaport in the late 1870s who has built an empire out of his interests in shipping and the railways for the apparent good of the community, but in fact motivated mainly by self-interest. His public and private lives have been sustained by lies and hypocrisy; and in the gripping moral thriller that plays out around him, fifteen years after an initial lie for which his wife’s brother Johan took the rap and went into exile in America for, Ibsen provides a complex and constantly shifting portrait of the extreme measures that a man will take to sustain his position.
Written in 1877, just before the series of great and more familiar plays that include A Doll’s House, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, The Lady from the Sea and Hedda Gabler, it has an surprising relevance now: as translator of this version, Samuel Adamson, comments, “like all great plays it’s absolutely of its time and of today”, and goes on, “What could have more contemporary resonance than a story about sleaze in high places, American imperialism, the power of the press and the freedom of women?”
Adamson proves the point by commenting that in rehearsal discussions of Bernick have resulted in the likes of Blair and Bush, Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch, Jonathan Aitken and David Blunkett, Peter Mandelson and Jeffrey Archer, George Bush and Bill Clinton being name-checked, amongst others. As Bernick finally looks for redemption from a bout of truth-telling, I couldn’t help but thinking of the “sword of truth” that finally impaled Jonathan Aitken.
But though those parallels are inevitable, neither Adamson’s translation nor Marianne Elliott’s faithfully period production ever labour the point. Though the staging – with its moody lighting by Chris Davey of Rae Smith’s grey set – is slow to warm up in its laboured scene-setting, it finally catches fire in the second act, thanks particularly to Lewis’s riveting portrayal of a man whose skeletons are rattling so loudly in the closet that he’s in a state of perpetual anxiety lest he be finally exposed.
A large ensemble cast of 22 – plus five live musicians performing Olly Fox’s atmospheric music – also includes such fine actors as Lesley Manville as Karsten’s wife’s half-sister and the voice of his conscience and Joseph Millson as his wife’s brother. It’s exactly the kind of rare re-discovery the National is here to provide us with.