Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Theatre review: Ghosts (Almeida)

For his production of Ghosts at the Almeida, Richard Eyre provides his own translation of Ibsen's play about the dangers both of unfettered sexuality, and its repression. Lesley Manville plays Helene Alving, a wealthy widow preparing to mark the 10th anniversary of her husband's death by opening an orphanage in his memory. The arrival of her artist son Oswald (Jack Lowden) after two years away is meant to be a further cause for celebration, but instead it's the catalyst for Mrs Alving to confess some painful truths. Oswald is ill, and he's also flirting with the maid, Regina (Charlene McKenna.) Both of these are cause for concern because the late Captain was far from the paragon of virtue he's been painted as. His widow is troubled by the "ghosts" of memories being dragged up, but the Captain actually left a couple of physical reminders of his infidelities behind too.

Having seen a couple of productions before this strikes me as an almost perfect take on Ghosts. The play was a "ban this sick filth" scandal in its day, thanks to its plot revolving around venereal disease and potential incest. But what was scandalously forthright in 1882 can seem very oblique today.


Perhaps Eyre writing his own version to direct has helped him edit down to the bare necessities, as he knew how he planned to stage the revelations. Lowden grabbing his crotch as he discusses the sins of the father being visited upon the son may not be subtle, but it beats endlessly going round in circles with significant looks about how his father really loved life. It all helps make the production fly by with great pace, and playing it straight through with no interval seems the right approach to me given Ibsen takes a certain amount of artistic licence anyway in condensing its action into a more-than-Aristotelian 12 hours.


It's interesting, though, to see a familiar play with someone who doesn't know it, and although Jan also liked it the briskness may have left certain corners of the story unexplored. I thought Manville gave an excellent portrayal of emotions repressed for decades, but we did disagree on the sudden bursting of the floodgates when her son reveals the full extent of his illness. To me it made perfect sense as a piece of information she must have known was a possibility but had refused to let herself consider. But then I was thinking of this in terms of her knowing Oswald's father had died of syphilis as well - Jan didn't think that information had really come across, so he was unable to infer the same thing about Helene's reaction.


So perhaps a production that leaves the odd narrative gap, but a powerful one all the same, with some strong performances; Will Keen provides strong support as a Pastor Manders whose hypocrisy is never far from the surface. I also have to particularly commend Peter Mumford's lighting for managing something that seems to be frequently attempted and failed, namely a very low level of lighting that soaks the stage in shadow as the night draws on, all the better to highlight the eventual dawn. In the intimate space of the Almeida this darkness doesn't swallow the action and it's not a strain to see the actors. Mumford's lighting works well with Tim Hatley's semi-transparent set to create a suitable visual metaphor of people on the stage being haunted by shadows in the background.

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen in a version by Richard Eyre is booking until the 23rd of November at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

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