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Pillars of the Community

There's not much value in a town propped up by lies ---- Lona
Pillars of the Community
Lesley Manville as Lona Hessel and Damian Lewis as Karsten Bernick
(Photo: Simon Annand)
It is highly appropriate that in the centenary year of Ibsen's death the Royal National Theatre should resurrect one of his least-known plays and make such a strong case for it to be performed more often. The last fully professional stage production in Britain was in 1977, exactly a hundred years after it was written, when Ian McKellen and Judi Dench took the leads for the Royal Shakespeare Company. It is true that a cast of over 20 is required, and that the ending is problematic, but Samuel Adamson's persuasive version proves the play to be unjustly neglected.

A relatively early work, written between Peer Gynt and A Doll's House, Pillars of the Community examines ethical problems such as the corrupting nature of materialism and the inequitable treatment of women, while attacking hypocritical and repressive bourgeois values. Although it is somewhat plot-heavy and takes a little while to catch fire, Adamson skilfully accentuates the humour and ambiguities in the story.

Set in a small Norwegian seaport in the 1870s, the action focuses on the double life of shipping entrepreneur Karsten Bernick (Damian Lewis). His public image is one of a highly successful and respected businessman and philanthropist, who has already created much wealth both for himself and for the town, and is determined to bring (or drag) everyone even further into the modern industrial world.

But the private reality of this pillar of the community is somewhat different. Fifteen years ago he let his brother-in-law Johan Tonnesen (Joseph Millson) take the blame for an illicit affair and possible theft. Now he and his associates have used insider dealing to profit from a railway line which is supposed to benefit the citizens, and he is risking people's lives by insisting his workmen put to sea a ship that is unseaworthy.

The skeletons in Bernick's cupboard are in danger of being released, however, as Tonnesen and his half-sister Lona Hessel (Lesley Manville) have just returned from America, with the former now wanting to clear his name so he can marry a local girl, and the latter, who loves Bernick but was overlooked in favour of a wife with money, trying to awaken his conscience.

What develops is a sort of thriller, as we wait in suspense for the ugly truth of Bernick's secret life to be exposed. But as always with Ibsen, the moral issues are complex and subtle, as Bernick is not presented as a dastardly villain but as a charismatic man who really believes he is acting out of civic duty rather than self-interest. For him the ends justify the means, so sacrificing the livelihoods (or even lives) of individuals is acceptable if it benefits the economic well-being of the majority: that is progress.

It is fascinating that even then America could be regarded as the unacceptable face of capitalism, rather than as a land of opportunity, though again Ibsen's attitude is ambivalent as it seems Tonnesen and Lona have found more freedom and equality there than in the claustrophobic and sanctimonious atmosphere of their home town.

Director Marianne Elliott has elicited nicely modulated performances from the cast. Damian Lewis's Bernick is a plausibly attractive figure capable of great ruthlessness, who deceives himself as much as others. Lesley Manville excels as the free-spirited Lona, the first of Ibsen's New Women, and Joseph Millson makes an ardent Tonnesen.

Rae Smith's set becomes progressively barer as Bernick has less and less cover to hide behind, like Peer's famous layers of onion being stripped away to reveal the naked truth.

Written by Henrik Ibsen in a new version by Samuel Adamson
Directed by Marianne Elliott

Starring: Damian Lewis, Lesley Manville, Joseph Millson
With: Geraldine Alexander, Michelle Dockery, Brid Brennan, Michael Thomas, Justin Salinger, David Baron, Cornelius Booth, Ita O'Brien, Michael Gould, Annabel Leventon, Tom Marshall, Pamela Merrick, Simon Molloy, Paul Moriarty, Nathan Rimell, Jennifer Scott-Malden, Jack Stanley, Una Stubbs, Kirsty Wood, Hugh Wyld
Set Design: Rae Smith
Lighting: Chris Davey
Sound: Ian Dickinson
Music: Olly Fox
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes including one 20 minute interval
A Royal National Theatre production
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking until 4th February 2006 in repertory with The History Boys
Reviewed by Neil Dowden based on 1st November performance at Lyttelton Theatre, Royal National Theatre South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Underground: Waterloo)
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