Since taking on this job four years ago, I’ve reviewed 289 plays of which, perhaps, 50 have been worth seeing. Of these, only about ten have been truly outstanding and, of these, only five as close to perfection as it’s possible to get in the theatre. Pillars of the Community, a full-scale production of one of Ibsen’s lesser-known plays at the National, belongs in this latter category. It is, quite simply, one of the best things I’ve ever seen in the theatre.
To begin with, there’s the writing. Shakespeare might be a better poet and Chekhov may be capable of summoning deeper feelings, but, in terms of sheer mastery of the craft, Ibsen has no equal. You have to concentrate very hard during the first scene of Pillars of the Community because every single detail turns out to be plot-related. It’s set in a shipbuilding town in Norway and, at first, it seems as if Ibsen is taking the story in all sorts of peculiar, tangential directions. Yet the different strands gradually start to intertwine until, in the final scene before the first-half curtain, they all suddenly knot together. The effect is almost unbearably thrilling. In my experience, you know when you’re in the presence of a genuine master because your mind starts to throb like a tuning fork that’s struck exactly the right note. As a piece of writing, Pillars of the Community is pure gold. It’s the standard to which all playwrights should aspire.
Then there’s the translation. I’ve seen enough translations, particularly of Ibsen and Chekhov, to know how hard this is to get right, and Samuel Adamson has done a fine job here. Indeed, having seen his translations of Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard as well, I’d go as far as to say he’s currently the reigning champ of translators. Pillars of the Community is fluid and natural without any of the cack-handed attempts to introduce vernacular dialogue that so often mar contemporary translations of the classics.
The cast, too, is superb. I’ve had my reservations about Damian Lewis in the past, but his performance as Karston Bernick, the corrupt shipping magnate tortured by guilt, is flawless. He’s matched, punch for punch, by Lesley Manville, who manages to inject considerable sex appeal into the rather thankless task of awakening the anti-hero’s conscience. There’s excellent support, too, from Michael Gould as Karston’s creepy henchman, Michelle Dockery as his beautiful ward and Joseph Millson as his hot-headed brother-in-law. All in all, this is a cast of a quality that no other company could match, including the Royal Shakespeare Company.
But the highest praise should go to the director, Marianne Elliot. This is a beautiful, exquisitely restrained production in which not a single false note is struck. Perhaps because Pillars of the Community is such an unknown play, Elliot hasn’t made any attempt to inflict her own particular ‘interpretation’ on us. Rather, she has just struggled — successfully — to serve the text. There’s only one moment of directorial intrusion, at the very end, when Elliot unleashes a breathtaking coup de thé