Directed by Ian Rickson, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm (first written in 1886) feels unsettlingly contemporary presented at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre in 2019.

Adapted by playwright Duncan Macmillan (People, Places and Things, 1984), Ibsen’s dramatization of the culture of rage and the distorted power of the press runs startlingly close to the nerve in our post-truth, tilting toward politically extremist age. Exploring personal and political passions, Ibsen’s work is a mélange of thematic complexities.

Amid changing political tides, John Rosmer’s house, his ancestral home, centres the plot. With an election looming, anxiety grows. Tom Burke is dynamic in his portrayal of Rosmer, a man deciding on his future as voting day nears. A “butterfly caught in a spider’s web” he stands in between free thought and traditional values. When contradictory impulses cloud his vision his brain begins to grapple with the mutable concepts of morality and nobility. Does he retreat or take action? At the opposing end of his dilemma is one of Ibsen’s greatest heroines, Rebecca West. Enigmatic and unpredictable, free-spirited Hayley Atwell wholly captures Miss West’s sagaciousness while Giles Terera (Hamilton), as Andreas Kroll, adds a powerful, moral voice to the mix. But is morality a fixed state and whose voice can reverberate the loudest? Pick a side and covertly convert the opposition to your way of thinking.

Postulating over our duality as humans and examining binaries in a broader sense, Rosmersholm assesses the political and the personal and presents central characters craving for both emancipation and ennoblement. Macmillan’s nuanced rhetoric highlights another key point of Ibsen’s lesser-performed work; the lack of truth and meaning in our words and, so too, the lack of faith in meaning itself. Ian Rickson’s erudite direction illuminates to the audience how screaming louder can capture a room and how reshaping social conditions rarely achieves “fixed” status. In the end, it’s all compulsion and contagion.

Rosmersholm is now playing at Duke of York’s Theatre

Photo credit: Johan Persson