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Duncan Macmillan, playwright, 2019
© Natasha Krstic-Howe

Duncan Macmillan: ‘It’s a nightmarish world’

The ‘1984’ playwright talks his strange new Ibsen adaptation ‘Rosmersholm’, starring Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

He is the playwright behind West End smashes ‘1984’ and ‘People, Places and Things’. His latest is an adaptation – for super-producer Sonia Friedman – of Henrik Ibsen’s little-performed ‘Rosmersholm’. It stars Tom Burke as John Rosmer, torn between the polarising politics of radical Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell) and conservative Andreas Kroll (Giles Terera).

Roz-mers-holm? Is that right?

‘[Laughs] Everyone seems to need a bit of a run-up to it. I think it’s the “sh” that throws people. Apparently the original title was “White Horses” but in the end that didn’t feel very Ibseny.’

How did you come to adapt it?

‘Sonia has been obsessed with this play for years, as is JK Rowling, who she’s very good friends with. She asked me and I said yes without reading it first. Then I did so and said “Oh God, was this the right decision?”’

What’s so intimidating about it?

It’s such a mysterious complicated play that on one level you read it and it absolutely speaks to us now. And at the same time it’s a really dreamlike nightmarish world of its own. On my first draft I tried to make everything in it make sense, and I was removing its mystery. It was watching the most recent series of “Twin Peaks” – which weirdly is also set around a mill in a small town where a woman has died in the recent past and people are seeing white horses – that helped, it gave me the confidence to illuminate the mystery without trying to fix it.’

How does it speak to us now?

‘It’s about an election looming, about the media polarising political discourse, about reckoning with your own privilege and how a person’s reputations can be just demolished overnight. We talked about people like Boris Johnson: John Rosmer is not Boris Johnson by any means but Boris Johnson wrote a pro-leave and pro-remain article and then decided which one to go for and in some ways changed the country’s history. So who talked to him in the 48 hours it took him to make up his mind, who influenced him? That’s essentially what this play is. Oh god I wish I hadn’t said Boris Johnson now.’

This is a European classic, you’re a big Europhile who works in Germany a lot… er, interesting times?

‘I completely consider myself a European and I think it is a huge tragedy that my son won't be a European and won't have these opportunities. It’s so absurd, I’ve not heard a good case made for why we should leave. I’m not sure if it sounds radical saying that. [Mock
serious voice] And I don’t like that Trump either!’

‘Rosmersholm’ is at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Until Jul 20.

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