Our top tip for any fans of Michael Pennington is to go Mary Hunwicks’ excellent site and sign up to her mailing list. We doubt whether we would have found out about his latest production, at the relatively new venue ‘The Print Room’ otherwise.
‘Judgement Day’ is a new version of Ibsen’s ‘When We Dead Awaken’, translated and adapted by Mike Poulton. Many have suggested that Ibsen’s last play is more than a little autobiographical and it is easy to see why. The play tells the story of a famous sculptor nearing the end of his life, regretting having sold out his art for a wealthy and comfortable life, marrying a woman much younger than himself who is unsympathetic to his artistic needs, hoping that she might rekindle his artistic spirit. Staying at a mountain retreat, he meets his old muse, the woman who modelled for his greatest work, and he is made to face up to his failings.
Not being familiar with the original we can’t make comparisons, but the themes seem more relevant than ever, and the translation is sharp and lean. Although the text is full of poetry and metaphor none of it feels superfluous.
Michael Pennington delivers an outstanding performance as Rubek, the tortured sculptor, effortlessly drawing us in to his world. It’s a privilege to see such a gifted actor in this tiny venue, where all the subtleties of his art can be savoured. Joining him as the ghostly Irena, Penny Downie matches him with a powerful performance. Avoiding melodrama, she convincingly portrays a woman who has literally been driven mad and is trying to regain not just her sanity but her soul. As Baron Ulfheim, the predatory younger man who threatens to steal away Rubek’s young wife, Philip Correia brings energy and humour, and ultimately manages to win our sympathy despite his tendency to want to put women on a leash. As Maia, Rubek’s young wife, Sara Vickers creates a likeable character who is never self-pitying despite her position. She gives a multi-faceted performance, feisty, outspoken yet insightful in her own way. The peripheral characters unobstrusively add to the atmosphere of the play – Peter Symonds as the hotel manager, Andrew Hanratty as Ulfheim’s servant, and particularly Jane Thorne as Irena’s silent companion.
The set is very effective, essentially a turquoise laminated box with strategically placed rocks. With strong use of lighting and mist effects, we are transported from spa to mountain with ease. We only had one small gripe about the staging, which is the use of the Traverse layout. We are not great fans of this seating arrangement, and although in this production the effects were less detrimental, as even from behind Michael Pennington manages to be mesmerising, we cannot see what this style of staging adds to the production, or any production for that matter. Watching members of the audience one the other side of the stage can be very distracting, however absorbed they may appear to be.
Anda Winters and Lucy Bailey founded the Print Room with the intention of ‘staging exciting undiscovered pieces by well-known writers, and working with emerging and talented artists from all fields’. On this showing, they are certainly fulfilling their mission, and we look forward to more of the same……