nytheatre.com review by Aimee Todoroff
November 18, 2010
Despite its somewhat intimidating sounding name, Henrik Ibsen's Rosmersholm, in Mike Poulton's new translation, is surprisingly accessible. Originally written in 1886, Ibsen's play is part ghost story, part love story, but mostly a reaction to the politics of the world around him, where a liberal government had just been elected, and a conservative backlash was whipping the nation into a partisan fervor. This translation keeps the language precise and straightforward, making the parallels between Ibsen's time and our own jump to the forefront, highlighting the immediacy of the situation rather than the intricacies of the character's internal journeys.
The action takes place in the parlor of Rosmersholm, or the House of Rosmer, where we quickly learn that the attractive Ms. Rebecca West has been given free reign after the suicide of her former mistress. Rebecca's friendship with the handsome widower and gentleman of the house, Johannes Rosmer, is generally looked upon with favor, as it is obvious to the servants and friends of the household that the pair have developed a deep connection. However, the Rosmer family has long been a well respected bastion of ruling class values. When it is revealed that Johannes, under the influence of Rebecca, has left the church and has adopted more revolutionary views, all support disappears and family friend and conservative politician Dr. Kroll launches a vicious attack against the pair in the newspaper owned by his party. The liberal press, led by Peder Mortensgaard, isn't any more altruistic, seeking only to lead the people rather than enlighten them; and the former tutor, Ulrik Brendel, regarded as the greatest mind of his generation, has been reduced to a wandering drunk. Meanwhile, the loyal housekeeper Mrs. Helseth keeps seeing a ghostly white horse, rumors of Ms. West's unknown background resurface, and Johannes still will not cross the footbridge where his first wife jumped to her death.
The plot turns back upon itself many times over the course of the play, and the night I was there, the audience gasped audibly at each new twist. Margot White and Bradford Cover do most of the heavy lifting as a Sphinx-like Rebecca West and a naive Johannes Rosmer. The supporting cast is excellent, with Austin Pendleton playing subtext with rare dexterity. His Dr. Kroll is at once endearing and menacing, and in a part that could be dismissed as simply a villain, he manages to mine deep wells of betrayal to fuel the doctor's rage. Dan Daily brings a touch of the sad clown in a fine performance of the drunken tutor Ulrik Brendel. Dominic Cuskern delivers an honest and refreshingly simple portrayal of the liberal newspaperman Peder Mortensgaard, and Robin Leslie Brown's grounded Mrs. Helseth gives the audience an anchor to humanity.
The biggest challenge in this production comes from the stage itself. The thrust stage is surrounded by audience on three sides, with a large window upstage and huge swag curtains falling across the back, forcing the actors to enter and exit downstage and through the audience even when it doesn't particularly make sense to do so. The thrust, combined with the light, indistinct blue walls and floor meant to imply water, also creates a very open, airy feeling in a space that is repeatedly referred to in the script as being oppressive. However, while staging on a thrust is always difficult, it does provide for more freedom of movement, which director Elinor Renfield has used to full advantage.
Most of the dialogue in this new translation of Rosmersholm focuses on politics. The themes of the ruthlessness of extremes, ownership of the press, and class inequality seem almost designed to speak to our current times, and Johannes Rosmer's idealistic desire to enlighten all men and women speaks to the best in us all. But the messages that should come through most loudly in Rosmersholm are those that are unspoken. When Rosmer and Rebecca West say they want to elevate the masses, to raise people beyond what they currently are, what they are really asking for is the chance to escape their own pasts. But as Mrs. Helseth says, "The dead cling to Rosmersholm a long time." The real tragedy of this play can't be found in politics. It must be that, for the two lovers, there isn't enough space in Rosmersholm for them to outrun their ghosts.