From the moment the house lights go down on the Almeida theatre’s new production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, one knows one is in the hands of masters of their craft. Adapted and directed by theatrical giant Richard Eyre, naturally one has high expectations. Thankfully, they are fulfilled.
Let’s face it: Ibsen can, and often is, painfully dull. Thankfully, Eyre has mercilessly slimmed down the play to a beautifully taut 90 minutes without an interval, the three short acts following relentlessly one after another. The complex and gruelling plot, centring as it does on the vagaries and mutability of the past and its reverberations in the present, is crystal clear. Ibsen’s notion of scandal, which can often seem archaic, even ridiculous, is here shockingly present and current; suggestions of incest, infidelity, and the veiled reference to sexual disease and syphilis are clearer than ever.
Ibsen has never been so fast-paced or compelling. Neither has it been more alive. Ibsen has a tendency to be a little dry, a little monotonous; the uptight Victorian restraint forbidding any ostentatious displays of emotion. Eyre coaxes powerful and colourful performances from his strong cast, with real connections and chemistry between the characters. Charlene Mckenna’s Regina Engstrand and Brian McCardie’s Jacob Engstrand form a perfect picture of the troubled father-daughter relationship. Lesley Manville, as the powerful but haunted Helene Alving, builds a complex relationship with Will Keen’s pitch-perfect Pastor Manders. The Pastor is the epitome of religious and patriarchal hypocrisy, and Keen delivers the correct balance of ridiculous and menacing. He can raise a laugh with a look or an awkward laugh, and throughout the show his apoplectic prudishness grows more and more pronounced without becoming caricatured. The frustrated love story between him and Helene is kept at the play’s heart, and often communicated non-verbally and non-textually, a particularly notable and exciting part of this production.
Jack Lowden’s Oswald Alving, infected offspring of an unknown past, the prodigal son caught between two conflicting moralities, stands appropriately aloof. He delivers a nuanced and controlled performance. In one scene he sits, smoking and drinking, out of scene, but spectrally present, like the portrait and legacy of his philandering father. This is made possible by inspired and dynamic design, by Tim Hatley. On first glance it looks like a tastefully decorated black marble drawing room, but as the lights go up, the sets becomes almost magically transparent, revealing the dining room and conservatory behind.
The advantages of this graceful design are multiple. The landscape and weather, so thematically present in the play, are physically and visually here, impossible to ignore or forget. This is strengthened by beautiful lighting by Peter Mumford, and sound by John Leonard, the heavy cloud and incessant rain both visually and aurally perceivable. Moments which occur in the dining room beyond, upon which the plot hinges, are able to be seen in full. Characters are seen entering and exiting, which aids the realism of the piece. The feeling of claustrophobia is combined with an almost opposite feeling, that of being out in the open, of being watched, both of which find echoes in the play’s content. This is a production which is accomplished across the board, resulting in an almost flawless and overwhelmingly affecting piece.
Ghosts is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 23 November. For more information and tickets, see the Almeida Theatre website.