Written by Norwegian poet and dramatist Henrik Ibsen in 1877, ‘Pillars of the Community’ was first translated into English with the title ‘The Supports of Society’, and was first performed in London in December 1880. Since then, the play has been performed only on a handful of occasions – the last version in London being by the Actor’s Company at the Jermyn Street Theatre in 2003. So, it’s a fairly rare treat to see this Ibsen play performed at all, and at the Lyttelton Theatre there’s certainly room for the play to be appreciated in all it’s glory – particularly as it involves a rather large cast.
‘Pillars of the Community’ is set in Karsten Bernick’s home located in a small Norwegian seaport in the 1870s. Given it’s a period piece, the costumes and setting are authentic for the period – Rae Smith’s design and Marianne Elliott’s distinctive direction make no attempt to ‘modernise’ the setting, and justifiably so.
Bernick is a businessman who is, on the surface at least, a ‘pillar of the community’. He allows his home to be used as the base for a group entitled ‘The Society for the morally wounded’, led by a puritanical teacher-zealot Rørlund, who ensures his devotees do not indulge in any dubious activities such as rambling or watching a circus parade! But while the women folk are busy sewing and mending in the living room, Bernick is busy putting together a business deal for a new railway to be routed through land which he has acquired at a knock-down price on the basis of his insider knowledge of the railway’s imminent arrival. He stands to make a killing, even though he needs to perform some fancy footwork to get round the fact that he opposed a previous plan to build a railway – on the basis that it would have harmed the community, of course.
But we soon learn that there are darker secrets buried in Bernick’s past when his old flame and her half brother, Johan, return unexpectedly from America. Johan took the wrap for a dubious sexual liaison and financial scandal which Bernick hoped would remain out of the public domain in the far depths of America. But, Johan finds his loyalty misplaced when Bernick refuses to clear Johan of blame. However, Bernick is still in deep water, since Johan is set to spill the beans, leaving Bernick facing financial and social ruin.
‘Pillars of the Community’ takes some time to get into partly because there’s a large cast, and partly because the characters all seem to be inter-related to some degree. Half-brothers and half-sisters abound in this community. But the plot and the character relationships become clearer in the second half, as Bernick’s hold on his business empire is set to unravel.
Damian Lewis, as Bernick, leads a fine and hard-working cast. His carefully-balanced performance perfectly describes a man desperate to cling onto power, but tortured by his deceit. And his intonation has that kind of furtive quality about it that begs the question ‘would you trust this man?’ But there’s also very strong support from Lesley Manville as Lona, and a moving characterisation by Joseph Millson as Johan. And I enjoyed Justin Salinger as Hilmar Tonnesen – his banter with Bernick’s son, Olaf, brought some welcome humorous relief to an otherwise highly-charged evening.
I always enjoy the carefully selected and well-performed music in National Theatre productions, which adds enormously to the atmosphere, and this is certainly no exception. The music has a haunting blend of foreboding and doom, but there’s also a kind of ironic twist to it too. Somewhat less satisfactory is the set for the play. Towards the end of the first half, the set (Bernick’s house) starts to disappear, piece-by-piece. This symbolic dismantling of Bernick’s ‘world’ is a little too obvious. Given the compelling nature of the story and the powerful performances, I don’t think it was necessary to employ this device, though the rather bare set of the first half was more than appropriate to convey a house which in a very real sense is built on quicksand - the profit of lies and deception.
It’s ironic that on the day I saw ‘Pillars of the Community’, a senior UK government minister resigned because of a ‘mistake’ over alleged involvement in business dealings contrary to the ministerial code, showing that Ibsen’s work is just as relevant today as ever it was.
Although the production is enthralling and intense, I feel rather cheated with Ibsen’s ending to the play. Or to put it another way, it’s unsatisfactory if one is to believe Bernick’s eventual reformation. Of course, the ending has been the subject of considerable controversy since the pay was written. In a way, one might take the view that Ibsen ‘leaves the door open’ for the audience to imagine what the consequences might be. But as a confirmed cynic, I assume that Bernick’s future business dealings will be at least as dubious as the ones that heralded his downfall. And therefore I would prefer him to be ‘thrown to the mob’, or receive some more appropriate punishment. After all, leopards don’t change their spots, or do they?
There’s no doubt that this is a great play by a master craftsman (aided by what certainly seems to be a worthy new translation by Samuel Adamson). It has much to say (and doesn’t use few words to say it) about morals, the community and capitalism. If you’ve never seen an Ibsen play before, then this is as good a start as you’ll find. On the other hand, if you’re an Ibsen fan, you won’t want to miss this rarely-produced piece. With fine acting, and a gripping story, it will certainly hold your attention for the near 3-hour duration. But you might find the ending leads to some heated debate on your journey home.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "A lucid, not too modern-sounding version by Samuel Adamson." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "A wonderfully rich and absorbing piece." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE TIMES says, "The real joy lies in seeing a virtually unknown Ibsen work rescued from the shadows and shown to be a resonant play for today." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "A stimulating if wordy play about moral collapse and regeneration." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A grippingly entertaining stage thriller."