The National Theatre production of Henrik Ibsen‘s Pillars of the Community with Damian Lewis and Lesley Manville as the two leads opened at the Lyttelton National Theatre on November 1, 2005 — exactly 13 years ago today!
It all starts for me when a good colleague with whom I share true love for theater asks me to name my favorite male and female stage performances in 2015. Easy. Lesley Manville in Ibsen’s Ghosts and Damian Lewis in Mamet’s American Buffalo (with Mark Strong in Miller’s A View From the Bridge as a close second). And what is it about these performances that made me fall in LOVE with them?
One word: Precision.
Then I think about the heart-breaking performance Lesley Manville gives in Ghosts which, in fact, has brought her an Olivier Award in 2014 (I saw the play much later when it visited Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2015). I know Manville mostly from her work on big screen such as Secrets and Lies (1996), Vera Drake (2004), Another Year (2010) and Mr Turner (2014) all of which were some of my favorites in the year they were released. But I really do not know about her stage work. So I google her. And here is the first image I hit!
Ha! Small world. Have you heard of the saying that Brits have 10 actors? I am about to believe that! 😀 And it’s time we dig into the play!
Pillars of the Community is one of the rarely performed Ibsen plays but it seems to be typical Ibsen with morality at its center. And, the character Damian brings to life, Karsten Bernick, seems to be another one just fitting our favorite actor like a glove.
Bernick is the most prominent citizen in a small Norwegian town. He is running the local shipyard and planning to bring the railroad to the town. He is revered and respected by his fellow citizens since he seems to devote all his wealth and power for the good of his community.
However, things are not what they seem and Bernick has some dirty secret hidden in his past. What is even worse for him now is that two disgraced family members, his wife’s brother Johan and half-sister Lona Hassel (Lesley Manville), who just returned from America know about his secret. Moreover, Bernick’s ambition to connect the town to the main rail line has something to do with some insider dealings. He is determined to protect what he has but how far will he go to make sure these two keep silent?
Ha! Even though the play was written in 1877 it does sound pretty contemporary to me! Doesn’t this story remind you of a guy who is also revered and respected as a pillar of the financial community in NYC but he has some dirty secret in his past? Besides, it seems Damian took his first crash course on insider dealings in Pillars of the Community!
Bernick tries to justify his actions by saying they benefit his community which could, in fact, ultimately be true. Damian Lewis talks to Time Out Theatre Editor, Jane Edwardes, during the rehearsals in 2005: “His arguments hold water. I think the success of the play will lie in how persuasive I can be to an audience who will be a mix of people who absolutely decry any attempt to put self-interest before that of the community, and those who think that he does absolutely nothing wrong and is actually rather a hero.”
Hey, do you see another familiar face on the right lower corner? We have a 23 year old Michelle Dockery, a fresh graduate of Guildhall School of Music and Drama, as Dina Dorf, a young girl living in Bernick’s house. If you don’t know her as Lady Mary in Downton Abbey, then you certainly know her from the brilliant Vanity Fair photo shoot with Damian Lewis!
It turns out Ibsen wrote the play for a real man. Damian explains: “He owned ships. He owned the insurance companies that insured the ships. And he was very much the driving force behind progress in provincial Grimstaad. But he was also treading a very thing ethical line between self-interest and bringing wealth to his local community. I suppose Margaret Thatcher would have called it the trickle down effect.”
Damian also makes a very interesting observation revealing the relevance of the play: “If someone is seen to expose themselves emotionally and to display a bit of humility, we seem incredibly ready to forgive them. It’s as if the apology itself is enough. Both Clinton and Blair have done that very successfully.”
Pillars of the Community opens to RAVE reviews.
Michael Billington of The Guardian gives top grades to the production and praises Damian’s performance: “Damian Lewis captures perfectly Bernick’s blend of bravado and cowardice: even the way he checks behind every door before confronting Johan reveals his essential furtiveness.”
Charles Spencer of The Telegraph agrees: “Even the minor characters in a cast of 19 are played with exceptional sharpness and precision, though the show is dominated by a tremendous performance from that fast-rising, carrot-topped actor, Damian Lewis. He brings a mesmerising natural authority to the stage, and memorably nails Bernick’s smugly patronising self-assurance, especially in his dealings with his cowed wife. But Lewis also thrillingly charts the character’s craven panic and terrifying ruthlessness as his life starts collapsing around him, and achieves a fascinating ambiguity at the end.”
I find it fascinating that the last sentence in this praise could be written exactly in the same way for Damian’s portrayal of Axe in Billions.
Damian talks about Pillars of the Community to NYT theater critic Matt Wolf who thinks of this National Theatre production as “one of the most extraordinary Ibsen productions any of us has ever seen” at Times Talks London in May 2014. Here is the video clip and I am transcribing the conversation below for those of you who prefer to read. ENJOY!
Matt Wolf: “And years after that… I think really one of the most extraordinary Ibsen productions any of us has even seen, Pillars of the Community at the National, which, now we think of Marianne Elliott, the director of War Horse and Curious Incident, as kind of, part of the National Furniture, but that was actually her National Theatre debut.
Some of the people here may have seen Pillars of the Community. It was really Ibsen at its most dynamic… And it showed, you know, classic plays don’t have to be preserved in aspic. What was your sort of sense of it?”
Damian Lewis: “Well, firstly, you know, just to come back to what we were talking about earlier… Bicycling across Westminster Bridge with the London Eye one way and the Houses of Parliament… And St. Paul’s Cathedral the other way… Monet’s sunset uppermost in my mind…
You know… I felt like, having not done theatre for a while, it was the most romantic way to go to work and it did feel like it is what I wanted to do in spite of all the fabulous, successful Band of Brothers and Forsyte Saga and other things and interesting, wonderful work I was doing in TV and film… Well, maybe not all of it wonderful, I’ll let you be the judge of that…
But coming back and going to the National was a thrill. And, Marianne was brilliant. Not an academic or intellectual. She will say that herself. Thorough, well-researched, creature of the theatre, you know, who grew up in Manchester Royal Exchange with her dad directing there… And she just put on a fabulous production… Beautiful design by Rae Smith… Borrowing heavily from those turn of the century Scandinavian painters… and so a very spare set.
And I had beautiful Lesley Manville to work with and people like Michael Gould, for example, who I am going to see tomorrow night, in fact, in A View from the Bridge and others…
Matt Wolf: “And Michelle Dockery long before Downton Abbey.”
Damian Lewis: “And lovely Michelle, of course! How could I forget? Who I’ve seen on airplanes mostly since… going back and forth to LA.
But it was a thrill. Playing a corrupt politician Karsten Bernick with a burning moral dilemma, very Ibsen, and with a very melodramatic ending, it was one of his earlier plays, it’s not one of his great plays, I’m not gonna lie. But it was given a lovely re-working by Sam Adamson for the ending, and it really really worked, remained true to the original text.
We had a big hit with it. We had a big success with it. It was a really happy experience.”