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Review Round-up: Page’s Rosmersholm Splits Crits

Last week (22 May 2008, previews from 15 May) saw the opening of Anthony Page’s revival of Ibsen’s 1886 classic Rosmersholm at the Almeida Theatre. Starring Helen McCrory, Paul Hilton and Malcolm Sinclair, the production is a new adaptation by Mike Poulton, who has previously adapted Ibsen’s Ghosts and Hedda Gabler. It runs until 5 July 2008.

Rosmersholm tells the story of the house of Rosmer – a stronghold of religious and political conservatism – and the great changes which take place therein. It charts the love affair between Rosmer and his housekeeper Rebecca and their struggles between freedom and the cruelty of conscience in an age of political division.

The production is designed by Hildegard Bechtler and also features Paul Moriarty, Veronica Quilligan and Peter Sullivan in the cast.

While some critics dismissed Anthony Page’s “lacklustre” production as “Ibsen by numbers”, most expressed general appreciation for this new presentation of Rosmersholm, not put off by the “Scandinavian gloom” of the play’s “three suicides, a lavish portion of sexual guilt and a generous helping of self-laceration”. Particular praise was reserved for Poulton’s “lively” translation, Bechtler’s “imposing” designs and Malcolm Sinclair’s “memorably chilling” and stage-dominating performance as the villainous Kroll.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “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 … 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’… 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 heartbreaking.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “The Ibsen boom continues. And it is a measure of our theatre's confidence in dealing with the old Norwegian ironist that even a dark, difficult late play like this can be bathed, both in Anthony Page's production and Mike Poulton's new translation, in such physical and psychological light … This production confirms a point made by Toril Moi in a brilliant book on Ibsen: Rosmer and Rebecca are ‘heartbroken romantics, not moralising idealists, who cannot bear the world that bourgeois democracy has produced’ … With superb irony, Hildegard Bechtler's pale green domestic interiors are flooded with morning sunshine even as Rosmer himself is plunged into self-doubt. And the two central performers, preoccupied by the past, allow its impact to emerge gradually. Paul Hilton's Rosmer is a nervous innocent, and Helen McCrory plays Rebecca not as the wicked witch of the north but as a sexy, companionable woman in white who goes about her crocheting only to find her dreams have also been dashed.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times – “At times Rosmersholm seems the most modern of Ibsen's plays, at times the most dauntingly complex. Either way, Anthony Page's revival maintains its grip, largely because Helen McCrory and Paul Hilton generate a quiet, unpretentious intensity while obeying the dramatist's own orders: ‘No declamation, no theatricalities, express every mood in a way that seems credible and natural’ … It's hard to believe that Rosmer could spend the year after his depressing wife's suicide living with a housekeeper as beautiful and bright as McCrory's Rebecca and remain innocently impervious both to his own attraction to her and to the talk this causes in a respectable town. Never mind. The play is another instalment in Ibsen's running feud with tradition, convention, taboo, inhibition, the pressures of the past and whatever else prevents people discovering and expressing their essential selves.”
    • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “I don't know about you, but I rarely approach a play by Ibsen with a spring in my step. The thought of all that Scandinavian gloom and high seriousness is intimidating, as is the knowledge that laughs are likely to be in extremely short supply … I came out of Anthony Page's punishing revival of Rosmersholm (1886) feeling merely glum, however. Despite a top-flight cast and a lively new translation by Mike Poulton, the evening plods rather than soars … Page's lacklustre production often feels like Ibsen by numbers, and I felt like giving Paul Hilton's whiny, weak-willed creeping Jesus of a hero a good shake … Helen McCrory is compelling as the manipulative heroine, especially when she reveals her guilty secrets, and Malcolm Sinclair is memorably chilling as the villain of the piece. But this is an indifferent production of a far from great Ibsen play.”
    • Robert Gore-Langton in the Daily Mail – “This rare revival features the lovely Helen McCrory as the emancipated Rebecca West, a woman with a past and housekeeper to the ex-pastor Rosmer, whose wife chucked herself in the mill race and in whose death Rebecca is implicated … Any chance of happiness is kyboshed by Kroll, the reactionary bigot who tries to recruit Rosmer into stopping the moral rot in the community. Malcolm Sinclair has a field day as this starchy reviler of modern ways and he dominates the stage whenever he is on it with his hang 'em and flog 'em views … This would be a triumphant evening if it weren't for a time-wasting second interval, frequent inaudibility, and if McCrory - in a debatable blonde wig - didn't treat her towering part (the novelist Rebecca West took her name from this character) as a supporting role … But it's fascinatingly watchable all the same.”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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