The power of the media to shape opinion and occasionally re-write history is well known. Accordingly, those interested in the real story often seek out points of view from a number of publications before coming to their own conclusions. In Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, there are two warring political newspapers (one—unbeknownst to the playwright—even champions the cause of “free trade”) that are at loggerheads with each other over the notion and value of emancipation and free thinking for everyone. The editor of The Lighthouse (curiously renamed The Beacon in this Shaw Festival production) sums up the “art” of reporting succinctly: “I’ll put in everything that the people need to know.”
Not to be outdone, Neil Munro (who also directs) has adapted the original for today’s classics-lite audience and delivered a show that is more at home with supermarket tabloids than hard-hitting journals that dig for the facts.
Notable in Peter Hartwell’s set is the gallery of empty picture frames that watch over the proceedings like a dysfunctional family mobile, a wonderful metaphor on many counts—particularly the end of the inherited line.
As the play opens, ex-Parson (Ibsen’s “Rector”) John Rosmer (Patrick Galligan) has lost his faith and his barren wife because of his desire to “ennoble” himself and inspire his countrymen to shuck off the chains of class-based tyranny. In the family library, he’s found evidence of his forefathers’ greed and corruption (the crimes of which Munro expands to include selling ammunition to both sides of an armed conflict—imagine!—couldn’t happen today …).
Helping him through his quest is Rebecca West (Waneta Storms, who has the dynamic range for the role but not the critical sense of rhythm that, alas, is aided and abetted by Munro’s over-familiarization between the man of her dreams, reduced to “Ros,” which evokes an unwelcome echo of Frasier, and herself as “Becky,”—more often “Beck”—eliciting visions of the Angel Inn’s taps to the locals in the crowd).
It falls to Peter Millard’s wonderful portrayal of Ulrik Brendel, Rosmer’s long-ago mentor—whose own well of oratory has been drowned out by decades of self-deprecation, bankruptcy and booze—to bring life to the slow-moving stage. But Munro’s written prescription for a double-dose of “fucking” rings as false as the bowling pins analogy. Still, it’s worth the journey just for Millard’s contributions.
Douglas E. Hughes does yeoman’s service to the role of Peter Morten (a.k.a. Mortensgaard in the urtext: What’s been gained?). His publishing adversary comes in the form of the local headmaster Mr. Alex Kroll (Peter Hutt, who doesn’t find his ignition key until the second act). Here, Munro has stripped the academician turned politician of his PhD, but made up for that with a Christian name. Yet, the pandering to the quick laugh and familiar greetings purges this adaptation of Ibsen’s keen sense of irony that burbles through all ranks of society. The more the players converse on the same plane, the muddier their ultimate fate becomes.
When Miss West finally refers to the Rector as “dear,” the moment seems as uncertain as the high-register leading tone of the over-done cello solo, which is tritely accompanied by a unending wash of triplets that most certainly evokes the notion if not the art of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata. Indeed, the final frames of the play throw more than caution to the wind. Ibsen’s mythical “White Horse,” has been truncated and replaced by the never seen, barely noticed “white mists,” adding little to the final earthly moments of Ros and Becky.
Another unwelcome cut was made to the caustic, thinly-veiled criticisms of the former clergyman; instead, those quotes from Kroll’s publication are merely hinted at. Worse still was jettisoning the play’s final words from the all-seeing housekeeper, Mrs. Helseth (Patricia Hamilton at her savvy best), which left many in the audience wondering just what did happen to the unlucky pair of “house-agonists” after leaving the stage.
Sadly, the final revenge of the dearly-departed, childless matriarch was swept aside in Munro’s desire to be fresh and vibrant for “today’s audience.” No worries there. Many in the room laughed at any of the words they didn’t understand and the image of a man “releasing his seeds to the field” drew knowing chuckles and dessert-wine guffaws.
All of which threw memory back to the opening tableau where a couple of books—jammed with society-changing values and ideas—were left carelessly on the floor for the maid to clean up. JWR