Review - Rosmersholm at the Duke of York's Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

The National will soon be reviving Henrik Ibsen's sprawling epic Peer Gynt, but in one of producer Sonia Friedman's possibly boldest (or most reckless?) moves yet, she's giving commercial life to the Norwegian misery merchant's (very) rarely-seen 1886 play Rosmersholm; even the title is off-putting and hardly trips off the tongue.

The bigger wonder is that this isn't a transfer on the back of a sold out, already acclaimed run in a subsided theatre, as happened when Friedman transferred Ibsen's Ghosts to the Trafalgar Studios from the Almeida in 2014, or A Doll's House moved from the Young Vic to the Duke of York's a year earlier.

Instead, this production has been launched cold directly into the West End, hoping to find a receptive audience on its own merits. And this is when critical support (so often redundant on commercial projects like Only Fools and Horses, where success doesn't necessarily depend on critics) will be important, as it helps an audience to find it.

Given the added responsibility I now feel, it's a relief to be report that as played with a ferocious intensity by a cast led by Tom Burke as a recently widowed pastor and Hayley Atwell as his late wife's best friend and now his own confidant, a play about a crisis of faith and politics is truly electrifying.

It also startlingly becomes a play for today in Duncan Macmillan's searing new version. Politics, as Rosmer's brother-in-law Kroll says, is "no longer the pastime of gentlemen, it's a blood sport."

And with an election about to take place, he warns: "You see, this is what happens when the general public becomes engaged with politics - they get duped into voting against their own interests." And the press, of course, is darkly complicit: "Look, politics is complicated. The average working man doesn't have the time, inclination or education to fully understand it. So the papers sell them a lie that its actually very simple. That it's not about facts. It's about feelings."

And there, of course, we have Brexit in a nutshell. Who'd have thought that the best Brexit drama in London would have been originally written over 130 years ago?

The personal and the political collide on an epic scale in the tortured cultural and emotional wars being fought, internally as well as externally, by Burke's Rosmer and Atwell's West. Ian Rickson's powerful production amplifies them here with the contrast between the reserved anguish of Burke's handsomely bearded Rosmer and the wilder impulses for change being articulated by Atwell.

Rae Smith's stunningly bleak drawing room setting has its own coup d'theatre that it wouldn't be fair to reveal; but this production is revelatory in many other ways, too.  

Rosmersholm is at the Duke of York's Theatre until 20th July. 

Rosmersholm tickets are available now. 

Originally published on

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