Tag Archives: Ibsen

“A Doll’s House” from the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith

Artistic director Rachel O’Riordan’s brief introduction to this chance to see her superb work online – unfortunately only for one day – was offered with “recovery and hope for the future” in mind. There’s the important call for donations, but also a reminder of theatre’s importance as a place for diversity, inclusion and seeing stories from different perspectives. Her choice of Tanika Gupta’s acclaimed version of Ibsen’s classic illustrates her point perfectly. It’s fantastic theatre.

While O’Riordan points out that the recording was for archival purposes, as opposed to broadcast, so the action is often shot from the Gods – this doesn’t detract from a show that sounds and looks great from the start – with music from Arun Ghosh and gorgeous design by Lily Arnold. And what is on offer here is very special. Gupta takes a plot from Ibsen, an urgent objection to hypocrisy and injustice, and deep psychological insight with complex characters. But transposing Ibsen’s Norway for India ruled by the Raj adds immeasurably – it’s one of the finest ‘new versions’ I’ve seen.

While Ibsen’s period setting is preserved, the extra layer of colonial and racial concerns adds power. Nora, now Niru, is married to a British official, and the prejudice she has faced, along with Indian unrest, form a backdrop for the action. Yet Gupta handles all this with a light touch that O’Riordan appreciates throughout. That’s important – some things said may shock but this would have been the characters’ everyday lives. Nuances of complicity and acceptance as much as anger at injustice are all present. Gupta is blunt about British rule, and particularly justice, but Indians are also criticised. And the patriarchy is a target, too.

If any of this sounds a little… worthy… Gupta also impresses by how exciting she makes the play. There’s a great sense of menace as “past evils and mistakes” circle around every scene. Dr Rank, the at-death’s-door depressive becomes a serious character, the flirtation with Niru queasily upsetting as well as erotic. Niru’s old friend Mrs Lahiri, who admits her jealousy, makes a great role for Tripti Tripuraneni while Das (Krogstad in Ibsen) is just as good. Das is the play’s villain, a “thoroughly nasty specimen”, but he is also a complex character as Assad Zaman adds real fire to the role.

The lead roles share Gupta’s skill with characterisation and the result is a triumph for both Elliot Cowan as Tom Helmer and Anjana Vasan as Niru.

Cowan’s character has a little too much resting on him in this version but it is still an effective disappointment to see how far he falls. His love for his wife, however misguided, convinces. Their marriage is developed with great detail. Vasan’s performance is suitably nuanced and incredibly rich: flirty, sulky, stubborn, hopeful and despairing, the common factor is an intoxicating energy. When it comes to a scene of Niru dancing, on display for Tom’s English friends so that plenty of uncomfortable connotations come to the fore, Vasan is truly riveting.

There is a strength behind Niru that is gripping. As the plot resolves, her dream of happiness is still broken and her “stern” look at Tom is fully justified: he insultingly offers her “classes” but Niru isn’t the playful pupil anymore. Moving to freedom with more resolution than Ibsen imagined, taking what’s best from her literary predecessor, Gupta gives us the ending we really want. 

Available 20 May 2020

To support visit www.lyric.co.uk

Photo by Helen Maybanks

"Peter Gynt" at the National Theatre

Maybe it’s Ibsen’s status as a playwright, or the position of this work in theatre history, but Peer Gynt has a special place in the canon. This is the play’s third outing on the South Bank – and it even has its own sculpture park in Oslo! Based on a folk tale (surely a take on the Everyman story), this life story over 40 scenes cares little about the practicalities of staging. Taking in tall tales and the supernatural, much of what happens is downright crazy. While Ibsen’s ambition is clearly inspiring, and it can be interesting to see how theatre makers deal with it, the vision itself is not. The relentlessly imparted messages mix wisdom with humour and anger in a manic fashion. It’s a bit like being shouted at. And, over three-and-a-half hours, being shouted at for a long time.

Everything in Peer Gynt has a meaning, with its symbols and metaphors continually highlighted. This becomes draining. David Hare’s version works hard to tackle the didactic style with self-conscious awareness and injects a considerable energy. Setting the action in Scotland (the show is co-produced by the Edinburgh International Festival) is used to good effect. Updating the play to the present day leads to even more laughs. But the satire, while a good way of handling Ibsen’s misanthropy, doesn’t contain any surprises. Perhaps real politics are too crazy to keep up with, but casting Peter as a Donald Trump figure or calling the World Economic Forum hypocritical seem too tame.

Ann Louise Ross and James McArdle in "Peter Gynt" at the National Theatre
Ann Louise Ross and James McArdle

Director Jonathan Kent also does an excellent job of making the action interesting. There are even a few songs thrown in to keep us on our toes. Richard Hudson’s design is full of appropriately quirky touches and video work from Dick Straker is strong (especially in a shipwreck scene). The massive cast is handled expertly and there are some great performances: Tamsin Carroll stands out as the Troll Princess, while Guy Henry and Oliver Ford Davies, whose roles as The Weird Passenger and The Button Moulder rank as similarly bizarre, bring a sense of ease to the stage. Yet it’s really only Ann Louise Ross as Peter’s mother who has a substantial character and leaves an impression – which goes to show how much the play relies on its central performer.

James McArdle in "Peter Gynt" at the National Theatre
James McArdle

James McArdle steps into the well-travelled shoes as Peter/Peer. He is excellent. Technically, he can hold the massive Olivier auditorium and his physical fitness, running around all the time and barely off stage, is impressive. He handles his character’s ageing with a light touch that indicates his justified confidence. Best of all, he injects a warmth into Peter that keeps you watching. From the start, driven by anger and ego, McArdle brings out the character’s humanity, distracting from the many abstractions in the play. Peter is a unique hero, who we follow despite his many unattractive qualities. This production is as entertaining as you could wish for, and it really is a star performance from McArdle. But it’s still difficult to understand the play’s strange hold over the theatre.

Until 8 October 2019

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Rosmersholm” at the Duke of York Theatre

Theatre folk love to make revivals of plays relevant to current times. Now and then, the connections made seem forced, but this new adaptation by Duncan Macmillan of Ibsen’s play from 1886 resonates with the present in a way that frequently astounds. Set around an election, with a country polarised and inequality increasing, nationalism and fake news are everywhere. Meanwhile, the play’s central figure of Rosmer recognises that his privilege comes with a “moral debt” – as they say on Twitter, he is ‘woke’. A conscience examined in the finest detail and a brilliant performance by Tom Burke contribute to a superb production that fizzes with topicality.

Rosmersholm is no dry political disquisition. Giles Terera’s stage presence – as the establishment figure of Andreas Kroll – makes sure that the debate is entertaining. Rosmer’s brother-in-law and old friend, Kroll views radicalism as a threat to not just the country but the soul. And there’s more – ghosts for a start – which director Ian Rickson allows to be symbolic as well as pretty creepy. The characters and the damaged house of Rosmer, with its gorgeous set from Rae Smith, are haunted in many ways, with gradual revelations about the family’s history that make this quite the thriller. It’s all balanced expertly by Rickson and, if the evening is overpowering at times, it’s always exciting.

Tom Burke and Giles Terera

Above all, Rosmersholm is a romance – a particularly intense and tragic one. Marking out Rosmer as a “fallen man” involved with an “independent woman” could remind us too forcefully that this is a period piece. But not a jot. While Burke brings out the complexities of his role as a former pastor who has lost his faith and whose family name becomes a political football, his love interest, Rebecca West, is made the star of the show. This is a tremendous vehicle for Hayley Atwell, who gives a performance full of fantastic detail. West even seems as if she might provide a happy ending. You don’t need to have seen too much Ibsen to be suspicious of that, but Atwell and Rickson make subsequent revelations edge-of-the-seat stuff.

This is a relationship based on talking politics (that’s how our couple fell in love). The chemistry is fantastic, but the ideals discussed are also exciting and challenging. West proves an extreme figure who allows no compromise and there’s an immaturity in both her and Rosmer – take your pick blaming stunted upbringings or a narrow society – that leads to catastrophe. Rosmersholm becomes a frightening place – the talk is of sickness and sacrifice, death or change. No middle ground is allowed. It’s surely just the position, with all its dangers, that we face right now.

Until 20 July 2019

www.rosmersholmplay.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“An Enemy of the People” at the Union Theatre

Laudably, award-winning director Phil Willmott likes his classics to have modern-day relevance. The title of Ibsen’s 1882 play, which pitches the individual against the masses, is to be adopted for a season of shows that runs through the first quarter of this year. The idea is exciting – look out for Can-Can! next month and a production of Othello after that – but unfortunately An Enemy of the People itself is not a propitious start.

This adaptation, from none other than Arthur Miller, has Ibsen’s Doctor Stockmann in America and pitted against his community when he discovers that a plan for its economic regeneration, based on a spa, is doomed by environmental pollution. The fit with the original sounds snug but proves uncomfortable. The time and place end up as a kind of allegorical wilderness. The emblematic roles for small businesses (Ibsen’s bourgeoisie) are confusing, and representation of the press also fails. Despite a nice depiction from Jed Shardlow as a mendacious editor, this fourth estate needs updating.

Willmott’s direction is impeccable and, when pressure grows on Stockmann to deny scientific facts, he manages to inject tension. The cast is generally strong, although some accents could be tighter. David Mildon takes the lead role, which, despite being written as ridiculously naïve, he grows into the nicely. And there is admirable support from Emily Byrt as his wife – it’s good to see her doubt and anger at spousal inflexibility. Mary Stewart also does a stand-out job as the town’s mayor, injecting just enough exaggeration into her performance as a politician so that we are never quite sure how self-deluded the character is.  

At least with the mayor, a parallel with a current world leader is clear. It’s the other roles searching for contemporary resonance that prove a problem. Miller’s work on the piece is from the 1950s, while the production’s poster promises us Donald Trump’s America. The treatment feels old-fashioned, the dialogue clunky. There’s talk of radicals, insurgents and free thinking that cries out for refinement. A couple of potentially interesting points – the role of religion and the doctor’s intellectual superiority complex – could have been made far more challenging. Didactic in the original, the message is still clear, but too many annoying details get in the way of any lesson.

Until 2 February 2019

www.uniontheatre.biz

Photo by Scott Rylander.

“The Master Builder” at the Old Vic

Matthew Warchus’ finest work since taking charge at the Old Vic marks new ground for the director – his first Ibsen play. With a vivid new adaptation by David Hare and a lavish set – with a trick up its sleeve – from Rob Howell, this is a luxurious production with a superb cast. In this demanding play of ideas, there’s a marriage in turmoil, plenty of hypocrisy, painful psychological insight and a mid-life crisis that, at times, poses as philosophy. Miraculously, it’s all present and correct.

A trio of women make life, let’s say, complicated, for the eponymous subject of the play, Halvard Solness. Fearing for the future, Solness is paranoid that “the young will arrive”, while also guilty about his past – his career success making him the archetypal Man who had all the luck. There’s the overdevoted bookkeeper (Charlie Cameron) he uses despicably. There’s his dutiful wife, a role made weighty by an excellent performance from Linda Emond. Above all, there’s the enigmatic Hilde, who Solness once encountered as a child and creepily promised to make a princess. Now Hilde’s at the door, demanding her castle in the air and showing an unhealthy interest in steeples. This London debut from rising Australian star Sarah Snook is one people will be talking about for a long time – Snook brings a deep-voiced, earthy quality to this ethereal, childish and dangerous heroine.

Linda Emond (Aline Solness) and Sarah Snook (Hilde Wangel) in The Master Builder at The Old Vic. Photos by Manuel Harlan.
Linda Emond and Sarah Snook

In the title role, Ralph Fiennes gives one of the finest performances of his career. In his studio, his bullying lothario is convincingly charismatic and dry witted – Fiennes has always been good at lofty but here we’re allowed to laugh at the character as well, a clever layering that squeezes out the text’s suggestions and innuendo. Solness’ ego never takes a break. But there’s something wrong. His artistic output is linked to an argument with God and any mistakes or errors of judgment become a question of free will. Accounting for Hilde’s strange hold over him, there’s talk of trolls and devils, and a belief that he has some kind of supernatural help, making his wishes comes true “mercilessly”.

With Ibsen revealing cruel truths and Fiennes up to the job of depicting them, we come to see the “soft and gentle” side Solness’ wife claims exist. The pain at the loss of his children and disappointment that, while he builds homes, there is “nothing but despair” in his own, means the solipsism slips. And finally, there’s fear, expressed as crippling vertigo, through which we fully appreciate the deconstruction of the character Fiennes so carefully presents. It’s a masterfully built performance that should not be missed.

Until 19 March 2016

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Little Eyolf” at the Almeida Theatre

A marriage not so much on the rocks as already wrecked is the focus of Ibsen’s 1894 play. Alfred and Rita are an odd couple of obsessive personalities struggling to share their lives and loves. Along with a ‘sister’, Asta, who creepily shares a pet name with their son, this is a peculiar, unstable love triangle that’s intense from the start. When their only child dies, pressure mounts and the play doubles as an examination of grief.

This is Richard Eyre’s third time adapting and directing Ibsen at the Almeida. Living up to the reputation of his Hedda Gabler and Ghosts, the production is made all the more remarkable by Tim Hatley’s stunning set – never has mid-century modern felt so claustrophobic – and some strong performances. Jolyon Coy and Lydia Leonard take the leads. Coy gives a nimble performance, on the surface a repressed academic, cold and plotting for his wife’s money, yet toying with the idea he might be our hero. Leonard is the sexiest Ibsen heroine you’re likely to see. Embodying a sensuality that has a serious point, she displays a moving, almost scary raw emotion. Eve Ponsonby’s Asta has the trickiest job – doting on the family while the tension surrounding her own desires builds magnificently.

The honesty between this trio is unrelenting and shocking. Home truths that would destroy any family are shouted out – it’s difficult to hear a mother say she wishes her son hadn’t been born. The observation that the parents are “vile and cruel” feels like an understatement. And Ibsen’s view of the human condition –reinforced by a book Alfred is writing on the “law of change” – is pretty grim. When hope enters the play, it feels natural and welcome. This hope may be only a glimmer, an exhausted sigh after all the crying, but it arrives just in time to secure the show’s status as a triumph.

Until 9 January 2016

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

“Ghosts” at the Almeida Theatre

Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts has been a long time in the making – he first worked on the script in 2006. It must be gratifying that now it has reached the stage, opening this week at the Almeida Theatre, everything has come together so eloquently. Eyre’s adaptation is superb, his direction impeccable and his cast faultless.

In this 1881 play we encounter one of Ibsen’s many heroines, Helene Alving, a magnificent character whose long-endured marriage has ended and who hopes she is now “learning to be free”. But, while ironically planning an orphanage as a memorial to her syphilitic, drunken husband, she is haunted by her decision to shield his philandering from her son and the community. As Helene, it is difficult to praise Lesley Manville sufficiently.

Helene’s unrequited love for her Pastor, a ridiculously religious figure made credible by the clever casting of the excellent Will Keen, and her desperate love for her sick son Oswald, played with skill by Jack Lowden, makes things grim and grimmer for her. A radical thinker, Helene has us on her side, but the past and society are against her. The Pastor’s restraint and Oswald’s bohemianism, including his incestuous attraction to his half-sister, trap Helene like a pincer. Manville copes with the intensity terrifically, agonisingly building up the pressure.

The play is set in a single room, Helene’s “university of suffering”, created out of ghostly transparent walls by designer Tim Hatley. Sometimes opaque, at others revealing the comings and goings of the servants the Alvings are intimately connected with, it acts as a claustrophobic canvas for some fine work by lighting director Peter Mumford.

Ghosts caused controversy when it was written and Eyre’s adaptation reminds us why. Swift and brutal, you sense Ibsen’s hunger for life and the truth with a ferocious intensity. The heart-rending finale, where Helene faces a moral dilemma about the euthanasia of her son, could easily find you in tears.

Until 23 November 2013

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Written 4 October 2013 for The London Magazine

“A Doll’s House” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

The Young Vic’s widely acclaimed production of A Doll’s House opened its West End transfer this week at the Duke of York’s theatre. Directed by Carrie Cracknell, Ibsen’s classic story of Nora, a housewife and mother in 19th century Norway, and the breakdown of her seemingly perfect marriage, is tackled with great verve and features a superb spinning set by designer Ian Macneil. The show deserves all its many critics’ stars and is not to be missed – it only runs until 26 October.

The star draw is Hattie Morahan in the lead role. She picked up both the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards last year, and it’s easy to see why. She plays Nora as naïve – but only because of the society she was born into. Morahan makes the limitations women experienced at the time seem normal, no matter how bitter. Nora’s flashes of brilliance, as she comes to understand and rebel against constraints, are believable and moving.

Morahan is joined by a cast that is close to faultless. Caroline Martin (pictured above with Morhan) gives depth to the role of her old school friend, whose marriage of convenience has been a more obvious failure, and Nick Fletcher gives a magnificently understated performance as the money lender who wreaks havoc on Nora’s ideal home. Hiding her debts from her bank manager husband is only one of the lies her marriage is based on. As her partner Torvald, Dominic Rowan has to tackle sexist remarks it’s to be hoped make most people blush. The commodification of his wife may seem incredible, but Rowan manages to bring Cracknell’s pointed production home – Torvald’s fantasies about his wife raise uncomfortable questions relevant to men and women today.

This marital master and his slave are fantastic creations and with Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Ibsen’s text they breath anew. Injecting a strain of ‘Englishness’ into the play makes it recognisable, and there’s a cleverly suggested Pre-War feel to much of the language. Even better, ironic touches (again praise for Morahan here – her delivery is perfection) elaborate Ibsen’s dark humour and there’s even a sexiness here that has a disturbing edge. Stephens’ script is the key to this doll’s house being such a big success.

Until 26 October 2013

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Written 16 August 2013 for The London Magazine

“Judgement Day” at the Print Room

Having just celebrated its first anniversary, a spectacular year that has seen this new theatre run by Lucy Bailey and Anda Winters establish itself as an essential fringe venue, The Print Room presents Judgement Day. The play is a new version of Ibsen’s last work When We Dead Awaken that the adaptor Mike Poulton describes as Ibsen’s ‘confession’ about the price paid for a life lived for art.

Arnold Rubek, a renowned sculptor, is the kind of Romantic artist who’s hard to like and easy to mock. Quick to proclaim his genius and espouse aesthetics, he is aware that he has ‘sold out’. In a loveless marriage and on a constant holiday, he re-encounters his first muse, Irena – an ‘association’ neither of them has ever recovered from. Michael Pennington is engrossing as the objectionable Rubek, taking us past the character’s pomposity to make him profound.

Poulton’s version makes Ibsen’s concerns seem fresh and he brings out the master’s lighter touch when it comes to the women who have suffered from being in Rubek’s life. Sara Vickers plays Rubek’s much younger wife, Maia, brimming with intelligence and frustrated sexuality. She is so bored that when a dashing baron arrives on the scene, she’s willing to accept a trip to see his dogs being fed as a first date. Where Maia is full of life, Irena, Rubek’s old muse, lives in the past. Penny Downie convinces in this hugely difficult role, toying with her character’s ambiguity and succeeding in being always believable. No easy task when you’re being followed around by a nun as your rather Gothic fashion accessory.

Judgement Day is heavy on symbolism but Poulton’s text and James Dacre’s direction also deliver a gripping human drama. The language is poetically satisfying and accessible, giving you plenty to ponder on at the end of the play’s 80-minute run. The Print Room has a hit on its hands and, while you are buying your ticket, take my advice and book up for its next production, Uncle Vanya, at the same time.

Until 17 December 2011

www.the-print-room.org

Photo by Sheila Burnett

Written 22 November for The London Magazine