Even the grave can't stop characters from the past exerting control over prisoners of the present in Ibsen's "Rosmersholm."

Even the grave can’t prevent characters from the past from exerting control over prisoners of the present in Ibsen’s “Rosmersholm.” With its plethora of guilty secrets threatening to strangle everyone’s future, the rarely staged drama is further testament to the playwright’s prevailing theme. Anthony Page’s production for the Almeida cannot solve all the play’s problems, but his cast mounts an intermittently strong case for the defense.

Following the suicide of his wife Beata, Rosmer (Paul Hilton), the last survivor of a revered local dynasty, lives on in the family home with Rebecca West (Helen McCrory), the attractive woman who cared for her. Outside, socialists have won power, much to the horror of traditionalists as headed by Rosmer’s oldest friend, Kroll (Malcolm Sinclair), who is Beata’s brother.

During the heavily expository first act, Kroll is appalled to discover that Rosmer has not only given up the priesthood but also espoused both atheism and socialism. Desperate to discover the motor of his friend’s change of heart and mind, he turns on Rebecca, whose seemingly innocent position in the household suddenly appears in a wholly new light.

This is one of the earliest plays to illustrate the feminist mantra that the personal is political. Not only do public politics give way to the consequences of private behavior, but Rebecca’s actions in the present, and especially in the past, are utterly defined by her lack of freedom as a woman.

Her passion for turning ideals into action can only be realized through a man: Rosmer. The revelation that she had a hand in Beata’s death fires through the final act to the play’s tragic climax.

In Page’s respectful production, most of the preceding scenes operate on a considered slow burn. This is a society that has always operated on suggestion rather than outspokenness. Even the local radical Mortensgaard (a lethally effective Peter Sullivan) is presented as someone whose fury is kept tamped down, making his tiny flashes of rage chillingly powerful.

As Rebecca, McCrory also wisely refuses to overplay her hand. Blonde-wigged and inscrutable, she opts for a patient exterior, crocheting quietly in a chair in Hildegard Bechtler’s elegant re-creation of a faintly austere Scandinavian home.

As her character’s past is exposed in increasingly thriller-like revelations, however, McCrory seizes her opportunities. Rebecca is very much the play’s victim, but she also controls its action. Faced with the destruction of her hopes, she confesses all so Rosmer can survive. Impressive though her increasingly tear-stained performance is, McRory risks losing sympathy with audiences likely to admire rather than feel for Rebecca.

The problem for both play and production is the central character of Rosmer. There are several points where his naivete about his beliefs and those of others, as well as how others might see his living with a woman, threatens to overwhelm the drama. Ironically, the casting of an actor as good as Hilton doesn’t help.

A more stolid performer might have mitigated the character’s weakness, but the emotional legibility of Hilton’s work is at war with Rosmer’s foolishness. Hilton is simply too good at conveying troubled, intelligent thought. As a result, his character’s blinkered behavior grows increasingly frustrating, tilting the drama off balance.

The most completely successful performance comes from Sinclair in the difficult role of Kroll. Winningly genial at first, he shifts convincingly to burning, blind determination when his convictions are challenged.

Part of what makes reviving “Rosmersholm” difficult is that audiences now stand in completely different relation to its political content than was the case when it was written in 1886. Rosmer’s radicalism seems more like common sense than a dangerous philosophy, while Kroll’s deep-seated conservatism appears so stuffy, it actually draws laughs. Stiff-backed and patronizing, Sinclair rides this out with authority. But even he cannot totally reconcile the difficulties of a fascinating but flawed text.

Rosmersholm

Almeida Theater, London; 321 seats; £29.50 ($58) top

Production

An Almeida Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Henrik Ibsen in an adaptation by Mike Poulton. Directed by Anthony Page.

Creative

Sets, Hildegard Bechtler; costumes, Amy Roberts; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, Gareth Fry; production stage manager, Igor. Opened May 22, 2008. Reviewed May 23. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Rebecca West - Helen McCrory Johannes Rosmer - Paul Hilton Doctor Kroll - Malcolm Sinclair Mrs Hesketh - Veronica Quilligan Peder Mortensgaard - Peter Sullivan Ulrik Brendel - Paul Moriarty

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