Saturday 27th May 2019, evening
It’s been a while since we were tempted into the West End for Kenneth Branagh’s takeover of the Garrick Theatre. The combination of Tom Burke and Hayley Atwell in a new Ibsen play (new to us that is), directed by Ian Rickson, who impressed us so greatly with his direction of Michael Sheen’s Hamlet, seemed like a winner.
It’s no coincidence, we feel, that the play is named after the Manor House rather than the characters that live in it. Possibly the most important character in the play, symbolising the constraints of society, the house dominates the village, and Rae Smith’s design has it looming large over the action, so much so that it almost felt like we were sitting in the drawing room.
In this new adaptation by Duncan MacMillan we are reminded how current Ibsen’s themes remain. Set on the eve of an election, Rosmer, the young master of the house, is assailed on all sides by friends and old acquaintances wanting him to lend his ‘voice’ to their cause. First his former brother-in-law, who fears chaos if the ordinary people are put in control, then his radical former tutor. Meanwhile, he discovers that his closest female friend and confidante Rebecca West (the character who gave her name to the famous feminist author), has infiltrated his home in order to ‘turn’ him to radical politics, but is now in love with him. Former pastor Rosmer, who is already struggling with his faith and his identity, soon has to face up to the hypocrisy of politics, where it is suggested that he will only be of use if he continues to profess to be a Christian.
The play is not so much a drama as an exploration of the myriad ways in which two people can make themselves miserable. Ibsen is a master of the inner landscape of the mind. Whilst everybody around them assumes that they are already lovers, we see that it is not just social constrictions but their own peculiar combination of guilt and lack of purpose that ensures they will never be free, or think that they will never be free, which in the end comes to the same thing.
Rickson’s direction allows the story to play out without fuss – the real-time action is excruciatingly minimal, but the re-evaluation of the past which each character must undergo re-writes the story constantly, with an unforgiving pay-off at the end.
Hayley Atwell is utterly convincing as Rebecca, a woman who believes she will lose her integrity as a person if she marries, but whose ideals are being eaten away by her passionate longing for Rosmer. Tom Burke has a refreshing lack of pomposity, at odds with his social and political status, allowing us to glimpse the emptiness of a man who feels he should ‘do something’ but literally does not have the courage of his convictions. However, we were not convinced of the chemistry between the two.
In a strong supporting cast, Giles Terera stood out as Governer Kroll, whose benign bemusement at the lack of support from his former brother-in-law is enough to show where the real power lies, whilst Peter Wight’s touching portrayal of the impoverished radical turned scrounger Brendel is epitomised by the eagerness with which he devours the leftover fermented trout at the dinner table.