The first title of Ibsen’s last play was "Resurrection Day", but who would want to mess with the eerily evocative When We Dead Awaken, as it’s usually known in English? Translator Mike Poulton and director James Dacre, that’s who, for some reason.
But Judgement Day is already the title of a play by Odon von Horvath, seen twice on the fringe (at the Old Red Lion and the Almeida), and Poulton’s “new version” of When We Dead Awaken - no credit for the literal translation, and who the hell’s that speechless nun who keeps putting her mug in the doorway? - seems skinny and slight.
That said, Michael Pennington as the desiccated old sculptor, Rubek, and Penny Downie as his ghost-like muse and model, Irena de Satoff, play out their half-dead, half-alive mountainside reunion with a compelling mixture of charm, poignancy and bitterness.
Mike Britton’s design of neutral plastic surfaces and a filmic surround - the audience seated in a traverse arrangement on either side - invites us to imagine the rivers and waterfalls, the snow storms and woodland vistas that surround Rubek and his new young wife, Maia (an attractively impetuous Sara Vickers), in their holiday hotel.
Rubek is already ascending to his apotheosis when Maia is seduced by another guest in the hotel, a lusty Baron (Philip Correia), who is attended by his canine master of hounds, Lars (Andrew Hanratty), all done up in leathers and chains. Irena, too, was once held captive, and exhibited naked on a turntable for hundreds of men. Like Maia, in her own way, she’s returning to the elements.
Pennington exudes a gnawing frustration and a feeling of art-in-despair; both he and Downie transcend the slightly absurd “smallness” of the show in their straight-faced poetic overreaching, though I’m not sure the Soviet poster attitude they strike at the end fully conveys the tumultuous consummation Ibsen describes. But it’s a pleasure to be close up to such fine acting.
Rubek, like the ageing Ibsen and, some say, the sculptor Rodin, is coming to an understanding of his failures as husband and artist. The impact of the play should be as overwhelming as the scenery. But for all its compact ingenuity of playing, we have to imagine the wilder territories of thought and expression as much as we do the landscape. Restoring the play’s proper title would be a good start.