The Playgoer: Shaw Festival 06: Day 2

Custom Search

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Shaw Festival 06: Day 2

Rosmersholm may not make any American's Ibsen's Greatest Hits list. (Surprisingly it lags behind even the unwieldy Peer Gynt in productions.) But back in its own time, the role of its heroine, Rebecca West, was coveted by the very same divas who triumphed as Nora or Hedda. And for good reason. Rebecca holds the added challenge of seeming at first a sensible liberated woman like Nora, but only later is unmasked as just as tormented and tragic a figure as Hedda underneath. Proto-feminist "New Woman" speechifying, stoic resistance to romantic suitors, and a tragic reversal to boot--what more could a prima donna want!

But of course such a focus on Rebecca distorts the play, and, like "Hedda" and "Nora", the script is only enhanced by a more ensemble approach. Perhaps this play has faded from the canon on these shores because the role just isn't diva enough and inconveniently is too intertwined with, gasp, other characters. Pity, since the play just begs to be rediscovered by our own post-idealist, depression and anxiety-driven age, which seems to mirror so closely the moment Ibsen captures here in this 1887 masterpiece.

Neil Munro's streamlined adaptation and production for the Shaw Fest does a terrific job bringing the play just a little closer to us, without needlessly updating all the particulars. Outside of just tweaking the old Archer translation to reference our own political discourse of the "left" versus the "religious right," and such, Munro and designers Peter Hartwell and Kevin Lamott give us just enough 19th-century atmosphere, in this sparse, pared down setting. The "Rosmers' Home" of the title may be described as a mansion, but here it is a cold and empty cavern of wooden furniture and dark curtains. The staging of the play in the smallest of the festival's three theatres, the intimate 325-seat thrust of the old Courthouse, added to this stripping down. In this way the whole production was an antidote to the unfortunate impression that Ibsen is too remote and Old World to pack any emotional punch anymore. Sitting just five yards away from the action, in the house-left side seats, I was thoroughly engaged with these characters as contemporary people. Not because they were updated in any obvious way, but because I had been drawn into their world so easily.

(One reason I was able to get such a close seat on the day of, btw, is that the house was less than half full, and they moved us all down. After all, it was a Friday matinee.)

Munro, a stalwart of the Festival, has assembled some of its most seasoned veterans--chiefly Patick Galligan as Rosmer and Peter Hutt as his nemesis Kroll--who, by this late performance of a three-month run--clearly relished the harsh ideological exchanges. Waneta Storms cut an intriguing and sphynx-like figure as Rebecca--her statuesque beauty and quiet delivery added to the enigma of the character. However, it seemed she did not have the fire in her for the huge transformation of the character at the end. As with all Shaw actors, the text comes first, leading to impeccably spoken yet emotionally restrained performances. It serves many plays in their repertory just fine. But I can't deny feeling by the end that Rosmersholm is one Ibsen play that would benefit from more emotional release than he might have approved of, just because the territory here is so rich, and there isn't much plot to speak of anyway.

Still, in its restrained--yes, Victorian--way, Munro's production sustained an eerie melancholy throughout. It's a funereal play, in many ways. Death and suicide figure prominently in the offstage events. But it is also a mourning for idealism. This is clearly late Ibsen, after the early crusading works. What's most daring is the confession that fighting for a better world is no cure for the void of depression. (As the excellent program notes show, even Freud was fascinated by this play.) And that the threat of human intimacy and forgiveness can be scarier than the most formidable political opponents.

By dramatizing the personal/political boundary so nakedly, Rosmersholm may be the most current of Ibsen plays. The care that Munro and company have given it bring this out, and thus make it the hidden gem of the festival.


Myrhaf said...

"But I can't deny feeling by the end that Rosmersholm is one Ibsen play that would benefit from more emotional release than he might have approved of..."

Ibsen complained that the actors of his time played his characters with too little passion, so I doubt he would have disapproved. The actors were fooled by the drawing room settings to thinking the plays were naturalistic, but there certainly were not. In his last play, "When We Dead Awaken," the sculptor says that beneath his seemingly naturalistic busts of people are the forms of animals and trolls. Ibsen was talking about his own art there.

Thomas Anthony DiMaggio said...

Myrhaf's observation about Ibsen's art being in large part mystical is right on target. I've always thought that the controversy surrounding "A Doll House" ended up misleading a great many people; because it got the reputation of being a feminist polemic (which it isn't), it made Ibsen seem like a didactic realist, instead of a fundamentally religious thinker, albeit an unconventional one. (No secularist could have written the last moment of "Brand" -- after the fatal avalanche, an unseen speaker's voice booms out over the snow field, which is now Brand's tomb: "HE IS THE GOD OF LOVE.") I saw the Shaw Festival's production of "Rosmersholm" in 2006 -- I am not only a regular attendee at the Festival, but Patrick Galligan, who played Rosmer, is one of my dearest friends. I thought it was a splendid production, with one outsized flaw: the director cut all references to the white horses. When I asked Patrick later why that was, he said that the director didn't think that a modern audience would accept a paranormal element like that. (I begged to differ; the generation that has made Stephen King a rich man is perfectly able to handle a blend of the realistic and the fantastic.)