The Theatreguide.London Review
of the Community
Ibsen's rarely-revived play - its last major production was at the RSC in 1977, and the one before that fifty years earlier - is characteristically About Something, and a little less successful than Ibsen at his best at disguising that agenda in living drama.
Still, it has a raw earnestness that carries it far, and theatregoers will not want to wait another three decades for a chance to see it.
In a provincial and very conservative Norwegian town fifteen years before the play opens, one man valiantly took the blame for his friend in a minor scandal and ran off to America. The friend has since become one of the leading lights of the community and is about to use that standing to pull off a land deal that will benefit the town while enriching himself, when the scapegoat's return threatens to expose all.
There are a number of other complicating factors, all pressuring the man who remained and prospered to try to save himself, and Ibsen shows him frantically rationalising as he is tempted toward ever more soul-destroying stratagems.
The author's conclusion, that it is not men but values that hold society up, is preached a little too openly for modern tastes, just as the main character's internal torment is reflected in plot turns that are a bit too melodramatic. But a strong production, and a willingness on the audience's part to go along, can carry the play over these bumps.
Both Samuel Adamson's new adaptation and Marianne Elliott's direction take their time getting started, allowing the oppressively closed-minded and gossip-prone society to be established even before we sort out who all the characters are.
As Damian Lewis's protagonist gradually comes to our attention, he appears an unremarkable man whose exploitation of his friend's sacrifice fifteen years ago is as satisfactorily explained as is his current ambiguous land dealing. It is exactly that ordinariness that gives the play and Lewis's performance its power, as his succumbing to temptation lies within anyone's potential.
Neither the play's structure nor the direction allow any of the other characters to make much of an impression, with even the usual co-star role of the free-spirited sister-in-law underplayed by Lesley Manville. Geraldine Alexander as the protagonist's wife, Joseph Millson as the returning scapegoat and Michelle Dockery as a young woman yearning to escape from this oppressive society all do yeoman work without really registering.
That 1977 RSC production never came alive at all, despite starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. This one is significantly better, its limitations all being those inherent in the play.
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Review - Pillars of the Community - National 2005