The Print Room, London W2
Opened 21 November, 2011
This Judgement Day focuses on a sculptor named Arnold Rubek, not a cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Gosh, imagine Terminator 2 scripted by Henrik Ibsen... but no, this is Ibsen’s final play, dating from 1899 and usually known as When We Dead Awaken. It begins with the mutual discontent of Rubek and his young wife Maia on a hotel terrace, and immediately we are in all too familiar Ibsenese territory. Another unhappy couple. Another artist dissatisfied with the majority of his work since he achieved success: Rubek in sculpture, like Solness in architecture in The Master Builder, like Ibsen himself in playwriting. Another woman returning after years apart to shake the artist to his core… although, where Hilde in The Master Builder had been all but forgotten by Solness and arrives to claim what she considers her legacy, Irena in this play had been Rubek’s model and muse for his masterpiece, considers herself to have been spiritually killed by his abandonment of her and has returned in search of retribution. Its inexorable approach is heralded by translator Mike Poulton’s entitling his new version after Rubek’s great sculpture (Judgement Day was also Ibsen’s original title for the play); as doom comes down the perilous mountainside, Rubek and Irena ascend to meet it, in the deluded belief that they can thus reclaim their lives.
James Dacre gives the play a taut studio production, staging it in traverse in a slitted box of deep sky blue. Michael Pennington plays the aridity and bitterness in Rubek without granting him excessive access to its inner wellsprings; Penny Downie’s Irena displays a slight exotic accent and a more than slight (but again not blatant) glint of madness and despair in her eyes. Ibsen could usefully have paid more attention to Maia and the atavistic Baron Ulfheim, whose dealings frustratingly only begin to form a contrast with those of the central couple. Overall, I cannot but feel that Poulton’s devotion to this play is immoderate. He has fashioned a version that is at once sinewy and dreamlike, patterned with motifs of petrification and scriptural temptation; however, Ibsen here says nothing about the artist, his inspirations, acts and relationships both perpetrated and forgone, that he had not already said more than once. If those themes had a voice, they’d intone Teutonically, “I’ll be back.”

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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