For a play whose plot depends on shoddy labor, there’s no escaping the bespoke precision of Ibsen’s “Pillars of the Community,” which arrives at the National in a breathless production that does it proud. Marking her NT debut, Marianne Elliott confirms her standing as one of the country’s most versatile and deft directors, and her maneuvering of a large cast through a labyrinthine scenario built on moral shades of gray is something to behold. Worth listening out for, too, is the collective hush that comes with an audience hanging on to every carefully planted narrative land mine, lest they miss an explosion later on.
Play was completed in 1877, a year after the premiere of “Peer Gynt,” the verse epic to which this essentially realistic prose drama is an antithesis of sorts. Under Elliott’s keen eye, however, the workings of a town in thrall to various forces — sexual, political, economic — is capable of abstraction, too. Though the evening makes too much of a final scenic coup de theatre that has ossified into cliche, Elliott and adaptor Samuel Adamson subtly widen the focus to include any community, then or now, whose foundations are at risk of giving way.
The possibilities for rot — or, at least, subterfuge — are rife in the play, which demands particular attention in its opening scenes. Its exposition told primarily by a gathering of town gossips, the play is informed throughout by the deceit and degeneracy that lie beneath the stiff-backed surface.
Some 15 years before, it seems, prosperous shipbuilder Karsten Bernick (Damian Lewis) let brother-in-law Johan Tonneson (Joseph Millson) take the rap for a degree of sexual and financial malfeasance that can no longer be ignored. With Johan back from America, half-sister Lona (Lesley Manville) in tow, the stage is set for multiple reckonings sure to bend those eponymous pillars, of which Karsten is one made flesh.
On one level, the play seems to catch various Ibsen icons at some kind of complementary flashpoint: there’s plenty of both Hedda and Nora to Lona, acted with glistening guile by Manville, and also to Dina Dorf (Michelle Dockery), the orphaned local girl who seeks escape from the Norwegian seaport’s invisible noose in the peripatetic Johan.
But one has to wonder whether Arthur Miller, who fashioned his own version of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” didn’t have “Pillars” in mind when he wrote “All My Sons.” Both plays hinge tantalizingly on a poorly constructed mode of transport — a plane for Miller, a barely seaworthy ship here.
Not one to miss such opportunities, Ibsen conjures a storm in the second act which can’t quite keep pace with his characters’ fraught ethics and foundering ideals. Plans for a local railway implicate Karsten in a broader capitalist critique whose modern-day resonances ring out, inevitably, in our Halliburton age. Whom, exactly, do leaders exist to serve? The play raises a timeless question that sends out its own firm rebuke to Margaret Thatcher’s now notorious pronouncement, “There is no such thing as society.”
That same remark lay the foundation for the National’s legendary “An Inspector Calls,” a staging to which the contortions of Rae Smith’s arresting design pays explicit homage. If Elliott pushes the visual embellishments one step too far, there’s scant need to compete with the shifting psychology of a text that promises a happy (at least for Ibsen) ending. Don’t be fooled.
One thinks of Ibsen acted in hushed, conspiratorial tones, so it’s a real pleasure to bask in a big, bold production, potential melodrama always kept at bay. The invaluable Brid Brennan (“Dancing at Lughnasa”) is at her most radiant as one of the few townspeople not to scoff at that far-off land called America — which the very people quick to deride it will never have the initiative to see firsthand.
Dockery brings welcome fire to a quintessentially Ibsenesque emblem of incipient womanhood, leaving Manville the galvanically icy embodiment of conscience. Chris Davey’s lighting acquiring an infernal glow to match the leading man’s hair, Lewis is every bit the puffed-up potentate of this Nordic backwater. Once his certainty starts to sway, the actor charts the all-too-easy slide from dubiously earned majesty to crippling self-doubt. “You can’t see into men’s souls,” he snaps, the play proving to the contrary just how scintillatingly — and scarily — you can.