Often, productions cannot help but over-egg the modern relevance of a classic — putting a Trump-like baseball cap on a 21st-century version of Julius Caesar, for instance. But with Henrik Ibsen’s political work of 1886, director Ian Rickson allows the play to speak for itself.
Take the figure of Andreas Kroll (a superbly pompous Giles Terera), a local bigwig who abhors what happens when elections are allowed to represent the views of the people.
“You see — this is what happens when the general public become engaged in politics — they get duped into voting against their own interests.” This may be 19th-century Denmark but it makes you you think of 21st-century Britain.
And there are many other instances in which Ibsen — in this terrific new version by Duncan Macmillan — draws rueful responses from a modern West End audience.
The setting is the dark, grief-filled mansion of John Rosmer (War and Peace’s Tom Burke) — a “fallen” pastor whose wife recently drowned herself in a nearby river.
The walls of the drawing-room in which much of the action takes place are festooned with portraits of Rosmer’s wealthy antecedents. Lighting designer Neil Austin floods the room with nordic light that hangs in the air like mist.
A kind of stupor has taken hold. And yet the energy in this play, production and house is electric when the opinions of disrupter Rebecca West (a superb Hayley Atwell) are fired up. West turns out to be more than the placid carer employed by Rosmer to look after his ailing wife — who was also Kroll’s sister.
For Rosmer, his wife’s death has allowed the possibility of a relationship with her former carer. But, for West, the moment is ripe to compel her influential employer to put his name to the cause of radical politics.
For she is, it emerges, a political agitator who sees in Rosmer a chance for social justice to take hold in a society that keeps the poor poor and women downtrodden.
“It is easy to be destroyed,” she tells the guilty and grieving Rosmer, played by Burke with a permanently furrowed brow. “Stand in the sunshine… vote!” This is but one moment in which Rebecca enjoins Rosmer to stand up and be counted.
Granted, the play is a tragedy and, for those who are seeing it for the first time, Rae Smith’s atmospheric design gives a clue as to the terrible event that happened in the past with a tide mark staining the house’s wood panelling.
But, at its most energetic, the work is a plea for activism to take the place of political apathy. And to that end Atwell’s West is inspirational — a quality, one can’t help noticing, that is only conspicuous in 21st-century British politics by its absence.