Rosmersholm

Rosmersholm is a late Ibsen play focusing on a man, Johannes Rosmer, whose wife committed suicide a year previously. He now lives with the independent and freethinking Rebecca, and has transformed his thinking, rejecting religion, conservatism and tradition, to the consternation of his brother-in-law Magnus.

There were good performances from all involved in this production at the Questors Theatre in Ealing. It was gripping and tense throughout.

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The Wild Duck

It’s rare that I embark upon a theatrical performance feeling deeply unsure about it and end by giving it a standing ovation, but that’s exactly what happened with the Almeida’s production of The Wild Duck. This classic Ibsen play has been adapted by director Robert Icke and while it differs from the original in a literal way, it seemed to me to have captured the spirit of exactly what Ibsen was trying to say.

The play begins with the return of the idealistic Gregory Woods (Kevin Harvey) to his hometown, where he is reacquainted with his old friend James Ekdal (Edward Hogg). Passionate to the point of evangelism about the importance of telling the truth, he decides that his friend must know that his daughter, Hester, is not his: Ekdal’s wife, Gina, had an affair with Woods’ father Charles several years ago, and Woods senior incidentally wants to settle a large amount of money on Hester.

Meanwhile, Ekdal’s well-meaning father, Francis, suggests to Hester that, to prove her love for her father, she kill the thing that she most loves: the wild duck she has been caring for. However, Hester decides to go one better, with tragic consequences.

The action begins on a bare stage, with Woods speaking directly to the audience, talking about Ibsen and his work, musing on the importance of truth in our current age. The microphone is used by almost all of the characters throughout the play, as they comment on the action and deliver asides to the audience. It’s use sometimes leads to conflict, as characters try to grab the mike off one another, eager to have their voice heard. I really didn’t like this at first – shouldn’t theatre show, not tell? If you want to put in asides, shouldn’t you write a novel instead? As the play went on, however, I began to see the microphone as a conduit for the truth, as opposed to the characters’ words to one another.

Bunny Christie’s set, which at the beginning of the play is more or less a bare stage, gradually fills up and takes on colour and form. First the Ekdals’ living room is inhabited by carpet, sofa and table, then, as a final flourish, the curtain rises to reveal, at the top of the stage, an indoor forest, lit with fairy lights. As the set becomes more ‘real’ so do the characters seem to be. I worked out the ending well in advance, but this didn’t prevent me almost forgetting to breathe as I waited for tragedy to strike.

This production takes risks and they pay off: this is one of the most memorable and powerful productions I’ve seen this year.

Oh, and there’s an actual live duck.

John Gabriel Borkman

Ibsen’s penultimate play, John Gabriel Borkman, was performed at Upstairs at the Gatehouse by Handplay Productions, directed by Harry Meacher. This 1896 play is the story of a man whose pursuit of wealth and power leads to tragedy for himself and those around him.

The play begins with Borkman, having served a prison sentence for fraud, living upstairs in the family home, leaving only rarely and spending his time walking backwards and forwards in his room. His wife Gunhild is determined that their son Erhart shall redeem the family name, but he has other ideas. Meanwhile, Gunhild’s sister and Borkman’s former lover, Ella, arrives for a visit with her own agenda.

There are some good performances, particularly from Harry Meacher as Borkman and Judi Bowker as Ella. Overall this was a decent production of a powerful play.

Olaf

Olaf, by Ottisdottir Productions, is the first production of Ibsen’s 1856 play Olaf Liljekrans in the UK since 1911. Adapted by Mark Ewbank and performed in the intimate Barons Court Theatre, it’s an enjoyable fable that reveals the younger Ibsen exploring themes that would come to fruition in his later work.

Arne Of Guldvik (Che Watson) has brought his daughter Ingeborg to marry Olaf, son of Lady Kirsten (Rebekka Magnúsdóttir), in order to end a feud between the two rival landowners. However, the groom is nowhere to be found. Rumoured to have been ‘bewitched in the mountains’, it soon becomes apparent that he has fallen in love with another woman, Alfhild. Will he stay true to her, or will he be persuaded to renounce his love in favour of a marriage of convenience?

In its language and plot, the play is somewhat reminiscent of Shakespeare, with a light, comedic tone throughout and some beautiful speeches. The company have managed to do a lot with very little: barely any set and a handful of props are all that are needed. The performances are strong, particularly from Teddy Robson as Olaf. Sarah Madden also convinces as the flighty Ingeborg, while Grace Monroe draws our sympathy as Alfhild.

This enjoyable play isn’t Ibsen’s greatest, but it’s a must-see for any fans of his work, and is a lovely way to spend an afternoon or evening.

Peer Gynt

Peer Gynt is an Ibsen play I’d never seen before, so I booked to see a production at the Questors Theatre in Ealing. One of the playwright’s more fantastical works, it is based on a Norwegian fairy tale and tells of the life of Peer, who gets caught up in a world of trolls, mystery and magic, and travels through Europe and Africa well beyond his native Norway.

The large cast did a superb job, especially considering it was an amateur production. I was particularly struck by the play’s Shakespearean influences, in both the story and the language, although how much of this was down to Ibsen and how much to the play’s translator, I am unsure.

Throughout the course of the play, Peer seems to be searching for his essential self, determined not to do anything that might obstruct who he really is. In this sense it seems to be grappling with contemporary ideas of philosophy and psychology.
I really enjoyed this production, and the chance to see another Ibsen play.

Hedda Gabler

I try not to see the same play more than once: there’s simply too much to see that I haven’t managed to catch already. However, I also love Ruth Wilson, so when the National announced she would be starring in Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler, I sighed and prepared myself for the booking scrum. Was it worth it? In a word – yes.

Ibsen’s play is the story of a young woman who, after a youth of recklessness, feels as though she needs to settle down and marries the dour Tesman, an academic with the promise of giving her the social stability and prestige she desires. However, she soon realises that he might not be able to offer this, and begins to think she made a mistake. Things come to a head when she runs into an old flame.

Jan Versweyveld’s set is suitably white and stark, which fits in with the idea that the couple have moved into a large flat bigger than they can afford without the furniture to fill it. I was sitting in the upper circle slips and I wasn’t keen on the way some of the action took place at the far side of the stage, unnecessarily restricting the view from audience members at that side. The bare set also led to the unfortunate consequence that voices echoed all around it, with the notable exception of Ruth Wilson’s: she was completely audible at all times.

On paper, Hedda isn’t a particularly likeable character, and she does do some pretty awful things during the course of the play. Wilson, though, makes her sympathetic, wandering across the stage like a trapped animal, doing the things she does not out of pure wickedness but out of an overwhelming feeling of desperation. No one else quite matches her, although I liked Rafe Spall as Judge Brack and Chukwudi Iwuji as Lovborg. Having seen the play before I knew what was coming, but as it moved towards its dénouement I couldn’t take my eyes away from the stage.

While far from perfect, the National’s production is worth seeing for Ruth Wilson alone. If you can’t get a ticket, see it at the cinema as part of NT Live.

The League of Youth

The League of Youth is one of Ibsen’s lesser-known plays, but it has been given a new lease of life by theatre company Riot Act at the Theatre N16 in Balham. Originally set in the nineteenth century, it has been updated by writer Ashley Pearson to 21st-century London. Sten Stensgard, newly arrived from the firm’s Dublin branch, turns up at the Christmas party and fires up his colleagues with talk of democratic office politics and a new “League of Youth”, which serve mainly to increase his own power. The result causes chaos in the company, from the lowly office workers to the former and current CEOs.

A talented cast, including Niall Bishop as the cunning Stensgard, bring the piece to life, and it is fast-paced, topical and funny. It is an intelligent updating of a play by one of the greatest dramatists, and definitely worth seeing.