Friday 17 November 2023

Theatre review: Ghosts

The Swanamaker's tenth anniversary season opens with the venue's first venture into Ibsen - a classic playwright but still thoroughly modern by the standards of a Jacobean theatre. Thoroughly modern by most standards in fact - it's often commented how ahead of his time Ibsen was, and after the show Ben checked with me if this was a revival or a new play. Ghosts, which Joe Hill-Gibbins adapts and directs, was actually first seen in 1881 - well, seen in any territory that didn't immediately ban it. Oswald (Stuart Thompson) has returned to the remote Norwegian home he didn't actually spend much of his life in, having been sent off to study as an artist abroad - most recently he's been living a Bohemian life in Paris. The occasion is the tenth anniversary of his father's death, and his mother Helene (Hattie Morahan) is opening an orphanage in the name of a man remembered as a great moral force.

But Helene has been going to great lengths to portray a false image of her late husband to keep up appearances. In fact he was a lecherous drunk who had numerous affairs - the maid Regine (Sarah Slimani) is the illegitimate daughter they paid a local man to claim as his own.

All the secrets Helene's been keeping come back to haunt her at once, as the real reason Oswald has returned home is that he's been diagnosed with syphilis which is already starting to affect his brain. Having been raised on stories of his father's goodness, he refuses to believe he inherited the condition from him, and has been beating himself up about how he must have brought it on himself with his liberal lifestyle. He's also been on the lookout for a wife who'll care for him as he gets sicker, and has landed on Regine, completely unaware she's his half-sister.

In the intimate candlelit venue with its elaborately old-fashioned surroundings, Hill-Gibbins' production really gives the sense of why the play was so shocking in its sexual and moral frankness in its day: Right from the opening, where Greg Hicks' Engstrand, the man Regine believes to be her father, offers her a job in his new "home for sailors" with the barely-subtext that he'll be pimping her out. In what's probably the best production of the play I've seen, a measured, slow unravelling but one that never drags, reveals all the secrets and twists, with Ibsen's eye for calling out hypocrisy in sharp focus here.

Paul Hilton really shows up Father Manders as a foolish narcissist: As the tangle of lies and misery reveals itself, all of them the result of trying to present a front of the morality he preaches, he never fails to find a way to proclaim himself the biggest victim of the tragedy (the vague mentions of past controversies also suggest he's hardly been the best at living up to these ideals himself.) Meanwhile I particularly liked the way Regine, once the secrets have been revealed, stands up for herself at the callous way the family have treated her, and which it would seem Helene has never for one second considered.

Rosanna Vise's design covers the stage in a wine-coloured carpet the actors seem sucked into, and the back wall in mirrors - apart from the symbolic significance I liked the way Hill-Gibbins uses these practically, having characters spy on each other by catching their reflections. And the lighting, always a major element in this venue, is on the one hand literal in a story taking place over one night, with the candles slowly lit at the start and snuffed out as the characters talk about the dawn coming. But of course there's no actual sunrise so we're left in darkness, with a strikingly ambiguous take on the play's ending. A 19th century Norwegian tragedy proves a perfect fit for a 17th century-style English playhouse.

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen in a version by Joe Hill-Gibbins is booking in repertory until the 28th of January at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

Phot credit: Marc Brenner.

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