Ghosts

The traditional blacked-out auditorium that marks the start of a play at the Sam Wanamaker theatre is illuminated one candle at a time, until the six candelabra and four sconces bring the stage to life. The eighty candles still leave the space dimly lit by modern standards giving a haunting atmosphere ideally suited to the murkiest of Ibsen’s plays, Ghosts.

An interesting interpretation,with some novel aspects and fine performances

The subject matter that so shocked and appalled audiences at the end of the nineteenth century is far less repugnant today. So excoriatingly vicious were some of the reviews that it’s worth reminding ourselves of what was said in order to appreciate how scandalous the play appeared in its own day. The Daily Telegraph regarded it as “An open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly... a lazer house with all its doors and windows open.. Candid foulness… Absolutely loathsome and fetid… Gross, almost putrid indecorum… Literary carrion…Crapulous stuf.. novel and perilous nuisance”. The Standard thought it “Unutterably offensive….. Abominable piece….. Scandalous”. Many other followed in similar vein including Era who declared it to be “As foul and filthy a concoction as has ever been allowed to disgrace the boards of an English theatre….. Dull and disgusting….. Nastiness and malodorousness laid on thickly as with a trowel”. Such a reception today is unthinkable, but at the time its content came too close to the bone and no doubt hit a nerve with many. Polite society may have been riddled with syphilis, but there was no stomach for hearing it discussed on stage. There was no shortage of private dirty linen regarding matters of marital infidelity and incest, but for it to be washed in public was considered reprehensible.

What shocks today is how trying to conform to social mores, people can so embroil themselves in a tangled web of secrets and lies that their lives become a living falsehood, dominated by the fear of being found out while denying the truth to others. Hattie Morahan compellingly portrays the tortured existence Helene Alving endured at the hands of her deceased husband and which still dominates her life. The children's home she has just had built in memory of him is designed to perpetuate the lies about his being a decent man. She convinced her son, Osvald of his virtues, but sent him away to study at the age of seven, lest he find out the truth about his father. Stuart Thompson captures the idealism and desires of the youthful boy making the maidservant Regina the subject of his advances. Sarah Slimani maintains an air of propriety, but welcomes the attention. Then the past comes to haunt them both as hereditary disease and familial truths rain down upon them.

Adaptor & Director Joe Hill-Gibbins along with Associate Director Lucy Wray have injected a great deal of humour into this bleak tragedy. The lustfulness and comic hypocrisy of Father Manders flows with subtle innocence from the lips of Paul Hilton, casually dressed in a lounge suit that rather annoyingly denies his clerical status and makes him seem like any other man. If Mander wears a camouflage for his true self, Egstrand, played with rustic menace by Greg Hicks, places no cover over his outward ambitions, with schemes and sales pitches that are always manifestly false and so overtly riddled with deception that he receives laugh after laugh, even realising himself, at times, how brazen is his falsity. He cuts a delightfully comic figure who provides a contrast to the heavier roles that surround him, but how well playing for laughs works in this context is debatable.

With no set, but a purple carpet and wall of mirrors the focus is always on the interactions that occupy the stage. Those mirrors heighten the sense of introspection and of gazing into the past. Their presence represents a well-researched inclusion by designer Rosanna Vize as they fit with the use of a psychomanteum; a room or wall of mirrors commonly used by spiritualists at the time to assist in reviving memories and apparitions of the dead. While Helene’s time with her husband still pervades her live, she is also obsessed with her ‘boy’, whom she seems to keep trapped in childhood and is always in her mind. Perhaps that explains Osvald’s rather scruffy costume of old PE shorts and a woolly top and his presence on the stage, being stepped over as he lies prone on the floor when not in the scene. There is no excuse for the modern tweaks of talking about children raised by two fathers, however.

This production of Ghosts is an interesting interpretation, with some novel aspects and fine performances, but overall it is not the moving experience one might hope for.

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Reviews by Richard Beck

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★★★
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Performances

Location

The Blurb

For the first time ever in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, experience the work of Henrik Ibsen, one of the most influential dramatists of all time, with his scandalous Ghosts, a searing exploration of family secrets and forbidden desire.

Plagued by the ugly truth of her late husband’s legacy, Helene vows to erase the past and start again.

Ignorant to the reality of his father’s character, Osvald, her son, returns home to face an uncertain future. But when the ember of an illicit romance stands to ruin Helene’s plans to play happy family, she is forced to make a decision that threatens to engulf what’s left of her – and her son’s – life completely.

Nearly 150 years after causing a furore when it premiered with its depiction of incest, infection and euthanasia, Director Joe Hill-Gibbins (The Marriage of Figaro, ENO; The Tragedy of King Richard The Second, Almeida), in his Globe debut, brings a new version of the first modern tragedy to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

‘There are ghosts everywhere. There are ghosts here right now.’

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