THEATRE / Pure shower power: Ibsen's Rosmersholm

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The Independent Culture
AS A means of deterrence, the poster advertising the Young Vic's Rosmersholm would be hard to improve on. Engaged in what looks like an absurd training session (or not-so-dry run) for their watery end in the mill-race, Rebecca and Rosmer are seen embracing, fully clothed, under the sprinkling jet of a shower bath. Francesca Annis's face is tilted ecstatically upwards while Corin Redgrave turns to the camera with a doleful expression that could be on the verge of saying 'This is another fine mess that she's got me into.' Happily, Annie Castledine's interesting account of Ibsen's great play avoids ever living down to this publicity photograph, even if there are one or two moments when it is a close-run thing.

The production's best feature is, in fact, Redgrave's fine Rosmer, the Norwegian country pastor from aristocratic, socially influential stock. The repressive traditionalism of these forbears is felt here in the suspended rectangle of mortar-boarded and judicially bewigged busts that lower grimly over the action in Jenny Tiramani's resourceful design. It's this overhead tribunal that is at once defied and ironically propitiated at the end when the lovers, rejecting all external authority, pass stern judgement on themselves.

Under Rebecca's influence, widower Rosmer is on the point of moving forward into an emancipated liberal future, when guilt-inducing spectres from the past stop him in his tracks. Impressively, though, Redgrave's performance shows you the pastor's instinctive emotional dependence on the conservative community even as he is in the process of intellectually rejecting it. About to announce his political conversion to the reactionary Kroll (Allan Corduner), Redgrave keeps up a steady nervous knocking on his brother-in-law's hands; it's a gesture which actually seeks the reassurance it is trying to impart. Inner weakness seeming to leak like a faint film of sweat through his rangy frame, Redgrave's clinging body language suggests that Kroll is right to think that Rosmer is not one of nature's outsiders.

Annis makes a bewitchingly beautiful Rebecca but one who would be more at home, you're forced to feel, in out-and-out melodrama. The unwitting victim of an incest syndrome, the all-too witting schemer who pushes Rosmer's first wife to suicide, the heroine does indeed have lurid hues in her make-up. With a maniacal laugh deployed whenever possible, an ecstatic, flouncingly free-spirited manner and satirical coquettishness, Annis's Rebecca brings these out too glaringly. She shows you the adventuress, but gives you insufficient glimpses of the uneasy woman who reveals in the last act that her courage has been broken by Rosmersholm. If the manner adopted here is supposed to be a cover for semi-conscious guilt, it must be judged an inordinate success.

There are moments when the performance is genuinely moving (her orgasmic response, for instance, to Rosmer's offer of marriage, followed by a slumped, fearful rejection of it), but a lot of the time, it's crudely overacted. She doesn't just mildly tease the housekeeper about the superstitions connected with Rosmersholm, she pops her symbolic white shawl over her head and play-acts a parody ghost. When she discovers through Kroll that she may have committed incest, the gagging is on a par with Dame Edna's, though she does cover her mouth.

The final scene is powerfully handled and there is some vivid work in the supporting roles (particularly from Bernard Lloyd as the derelict idealist, Ulrik Brendel). Miriam Karlin, however, has taken it on herself to be somewhat over-endearing light relief as the housekeeper, with the result that when she says of the Rosmers that when they grow up they never laugh, it gets a delighted laugh. If anyone would benefit from a dip in the mill-race, you end up feeling, it's her.

Continues at the Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1. Box office: 071- 928 6363