Review: Pillars of the Community, National Theatre

From where preconceptions come I am not entirely sure, but I’ve never been a fan of Ibsen’s plays even when they come as highly recommended as this production of Pillars of the Community at the National Theatre. The play marks the centenary of Ibsen’s death and is apparently one of his lesser performed works, something that doesn’t always inspire the greatest of confidences.

The play centres around Karsten Bernick, an avaricious and deceitful man who has climbed the greasy pole to become something of a bigwig in his small Norwegian town and managed to create an allure of benevolence and good standing in the community. But skeletons in the closet have a way of re-emerging and when two members of his extended family, who know all of his dirty secrets, return from America, Bernick is challenged to discover just how far he is willing to go to protect his reputation and continue to ignore his conscience.

I’d love to say that I agreed with all the critics and say that this show changed my mind about Ibsen, but I’d be lying if I said so. There’s no doubting the quality of the acting on show: Damian Lewis’ leading anti-hero is excellent as was Lesley Manville as the proto-feminist ex who knows what he is really like. And supporting performances from the likes of Joseph Millson, Bríd Brennan and Una Stubbs amongst others kept the interest going, to some degree.

But ultimately I just didn’t really care, nothing made me connect with Bernick’s dilemma or really believe in his well-hidden morality. Ibsen’s ending seems to hint at this ambiguity too and after three long hours, I felt I wanted more of a definitive resolution than the one I was given. The choice by director Marianne Elliott to have Rae Smith’s neatly designed house disappearing bit by bit felt very heavy-handed as a way of demonstrating Bernick’s conscience stripped evermore bare and at odds with the conclusion. But how much of this dislike was due to my preconceptions about Ibsen, I still couldn’t tell you but I very much doubt this is the play that will change anyone’s mind about him.

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