Rosmersholm, after Ibsen

The production of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, currently playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London’s West End, has received almost universal acclaim, and deservedly so. It is, indeed, a splendid evening’s theatre. The production is of a very high standard, with very striking sets and lighting; the acting, from all concerned (Hayley Atwell,  Tom Burke, Giles Terera, Lucy Briers), is of the highest level; it is superbly directed by Ian Rickson; and the play, intelligently adapted by Duncan Macmillan, makes s huge dramatic impact. At a time when so much of mainstream West End theatre is intent merely on putting on light-hearted fare that makes little if any demands of its audiences, it is indeed a pleasure to see something that sets out deliberately to challenge. And yet, for all its undoubted merits, I found myself coming out of the theatre at the end feeling somewhat uneasy. And this unease was more than the unease one invariably feels when coming into contact with a demanding work of art. For, although it was advertised as a play “by Ibsen”, albeit in an “adaptation”, I couldn’t help wondering how much of what I had seen was actually Ibsen’s play. For the script had been extensively re-written.

I am, of course, aware of the various arguments for doing so. Neither am I such a purist as to demand a slavishly literal approach: any performance is, after all, an interpretation, and a work as complex as Rosmersholm allows for a wide range of legitimate interpretation. But to be a legitimate interpretation of Ibsen’s play, it must surely interpret Ibsen’s text; and if the text is so radically altered as it is here, then, no matter how fine the results, one wonders whether it can still be described as Ibsen’s play without violating the Trades Description Act.

Oh, the outline was the same. We had a whole household of servants who weren’t mentioned in Ibsen’s text, but they weren’t given any lines here, and it is quite believable that a house as large as Rosmersholm would have so many people working there. The other characters are more or less as depicted by Ibsen. The structure of Ibsen’s play is faithfully maintained, with the same entrances and exits, the same scenes, the same incidents. If one were to summarise what happens in Ibsen’s play and what happens in the adaptation, there is unlikely to be any but the most insignificant difference between the two summaries. The problem is that in a play such as this,  the interest lies not in what happens, as such: it lies in why it happens; it lies is what is going on in the characters’ minds; it lies in the various themes and issues – moral, philosophical, psychological – that come to the fore as the action, such as it is, unfolds. The adaptation by Duncan Macmillan, is, I agree, fascinating in its own right: indeed, it is enthralling, and fully engages with the audience at a level that is nowadays sadly rare in West End theatres. But is this Ibsen’s play?

When I tried some months ago to write about this play, I described it as work in which the politics, though present, were essentially “noises off”: the focus, I felt, was on the interior workings of the mind. In this adaptation, the politics is brought very much to the foreground, and much that Ibsen had merely implied or adumbrated is stated explicitly. Thus, Kroll is made to outline the nature of his conservatism, and delivers a Burkean speech about tradition as an important force keeping society together; and Rosmer, later, is given a speech expressing anger at the social and economic inequalities. Neither is in Ibsen’s text. Rosmer goes further: at one point, he gathers his domestic staff together, and, expressing his guilt for having been “master” of people who should be free, tells them all to go. I’m afraid I did not recognise Ibsen’s John Rosmer here: this was more akin to Tolstoy’s Nekhlyudov. Towards the end of this adaptation, Rosmer tells Rebecca in despair “I want my God back!” This is certainly a striking line, and undoubtedly theatrical, but once again, this is not Ibsen. Yes, Rosmer, both in Ibsen’s play and here, has lost his faith; but in Ibsen’s play, it is a question of interpretation to what extent, if any, he longs for the faith he has lost. I don’t really see what – apart from a moment of theatricality – is gained by explicitly interpreting it in this manner, and, further, by stating this interpretation so unambiguously. This is a play where ambiguity is, after all, important, because the various themes of this play are, by their very nature, ambiguous. Does Rosmer regret his loss of faith? If so, is he sufficiently self-aware to realise this? And even if these  two questions can be answered in the affirmative, is Rosmer the kind of person who would state this so explicitly? The Rosmer in Ibsen’s play doesn’t. The Rosmer here does, and, hence, becomes a somewhat different character from the one Ibsen had depicted.

If anyone hasn’t seen this production, please don’t let me put you off. As I said, it is an enthralling evening’s theatre. But I suppose that Ibsen as an author has come to mean so much to me personally, I feel, in a strange way, protective of him. I certainly do not object to Ibsen being interpreted in ways I disagree with. I don’t even mind Ibsen’s plays being adapted, as it is done here. But I do find myself demurring when a play advertised as being “by Ibsen” when, frankly, it isn’t. This is not Rosmersholm, by Ibsen; this is Rosmersholm, after Ibsen.

 

 

 

 

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on June 9, 2019 at 8:21 pm

    “Please don’t let me put you off”.
    Part of the strength of drama is the ambiguity, the lack of access to intentions and mental states.
    Rosmer tells Rebecca in despair “I want my God back!”
    How people have responded to their loss of faith is a lot more diverse and complicated than this and still the subject of much conflict (look at the controversial popularity of Jordan Peterson for example) That crude caricature is not exactly Nietzsche’s “How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? “.
    I am a bit put off, but there is a problem here: how much do audiences know about the politics and philosophy of the 19th century and to what extent is it the responsibility of producers to educate people (and what chance do I have of seeing an unadulterated version anyway). It’s not as if I know much and I have the horrible suspicion that I know a little bit more than some theatre goers.
    In other words I might go, put off or not.

    Reply

    • Interesting, isn’t it., that the philosophical questions that so concerned writers & thinkers in the 19th century – essentially, variations on “how do we create our values when religious belief can no longer be taken as a given?” – are still very much with us. Interesting too that it’s the artistic achievement of the mid- to late- 19th century (and, i guess, the early 20th century too) that, on the whole, most fascinates me. I’m sure that says something about me, although I’m not sure I’d care to speculate about that here!

      Reply

  2. Recently I saw a similar appropriation of John Gabriel Borkman. I cringe when an Ibsen adaption deliberately omits the psychological brilliance of the great playwright while retaining much of the plot and setting.

    Reply

    • I don’t actually mind people taking Ibsen’s play as a starting point, and making something new out of it. But I do think it should be clearly labelled. This was labelled “by Henrik Ibsen”, and, frankly, it wasn’t. “A play based on Ibsen” would have been nearer the mark.

      Reply

  3. […] true representation of Ibsen’s intentions, and that it might be better seen as an adaptation. The Argumentative Old Git’s blog post is certainly worth a read on this topic. My review will just focus on this […]

    Reply

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