Ibsen’s paradoxical reputation as the fearless experimenter and driver of social change of his day, and as a writer of somewhat fusty GCSE drama texts, makes him a risky choice for a small theatre company, particularly one like Sell A Door with a commitment to bringing young people to the theatre. Yet what better play to explore Ibsen’s troubled legacy than Ghosts, directed by Anna Fox at the Greenwich Theatre; a play about old ideals and dead ideas which are nevertheless insidiously prevalent.
On entering the theatre one is met with the sound of the howling wind as one surveys a stage that is traditionally naturalistic with a twist. It is sparsely populated with tastefully, though somehow haphazardly, arranged period furniture. Rather than the usual cramped box, the auditorium is gratifyingly spacious, the stage bordered on three sides by a fabric backdrop hanging from a metal rail. This backdrop is painted almost childishly with what may be a Norwegian fjord or a Scottish loch; it gives the play an ethereal quality, foregrounding notions of interiority and exteriority, reality and artifice. The openness of the space provides a welcome counterpoint to the usual stifling claustrophobia of Ibsen.
The small cast is strong: the characters are precisely and quaintly drawn, but are occasionally at risk of descending into cartoonish archetypes. Tamaryn Payne, (of Hollyoaks fame) delivers a competent Regina, a maid with delusions of grandeur which are, in Payne’s case, perhaps a little too convincing; she stands prim and proper in a spotless white blouse and navy skirt, proclaiming in an exaggerated and affected RP, occasionally giving a bell or a table top a cursory wipe with a lace handkerchief. Her mistress Mrs Alving, played by Deborah Blake, makes a grand entrance to the stage, flamboyantly dressed, with a calm and comfortably refined surface concealing tempestuous depths. The male characters are appropriately impotent and ridiculous, though perhaps lacking some of the complexity of the female characters. Liam Smith’s Engstrand is an almost lovable alcoholic rogue who brings a touch of humour to the piece, while Robert Gill’s Pastor Manders is almost effeminate at times in his shrill and sanctimonious social outrage, but remains a powerful and accurate portrayal of the voice of male-dominated religious conservatism. Jason Langley creates a charismatically tortured Oswald, who is, like much of the piece, too restrained to fully connect.
The blurb states that although Ghosts was “penned in 1881, it is not hard for us to see the parallels in our own society”. If this were indeed the intention, not enough is done to highlight this. Ghosts has all the classic Ibsenian tropes of a runaway wife, a fallen woman, suppression, repression, and financial ruin precipitated by greed and carelessness; yet the play remains too faithful to the text and form of the play for any of its scandalous original impact to be felt. What remains, however, is a subtle yet powerful play deftly staged and performed, raising questions relevant to us all. Can we escape our past or our past selves? What solace can life and one’s family provide in the face of irreparable trauma? How does one find the “joy of life” in this “vale of tears”? As you may guess from these questions the play is not exactly laugh-a-minute, but neither is it, as a woman in the bar damningly sighed, “heavy”. It is a thoughtful, accomplished production, which may even leave you wanting more.
Ghosts is playing at Greenwich Theatre until Sunday 5 May. For more information and tickets, see the Greenwich Theatre website.