Ghosts

Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts has always felt like a stiff play and whilst it may have caused a sensation upon publication, being banned from performance, its themes of freedom, sexuality and religion have struggled to grip me. In Richard Eyre’s production, having already met critical acclaim in its run at the Almeida Theatre, and now mounted at the Trafalgar Studios, Ghosts is anything but stiff. Eyre’s adaptation brings Ibsen’s play to a fine 90 minutes, and whilst it naturally offers syphilis and orphanage burning, it does so with a swiftness; like the winds that fan a bushfire, Ghosts is ignited.

Lesley Manville leads the cast with her portrayal of Helene Alving. Like a ribbon that unfolds itself before being snagged and torn by the sharpness of life, Manville unravels before us. From fleeting femininity to boldness and endearing motherhood, her breakdown as she sobs against her convulsing son closes Ghosts with a chill that trickles down the spine. Having been celebrated for his portrayal and understanding of female characters, Ibsen’s Helene Alving is a spirited character. Caged for years under her marriage and holding tight the ghosts of her family, Eyre’s interpretation leaves her clawing at the threads of her unwinding family.

Whilst there are fine performances from the rest of the cast, praise must first be bestowed to Tim Hatley’s design and Peter Mumford’s lighting for creating an ever present character within their designs. With walls that reveal the characters’ ghosts, mirroring them in the translucent but reflective material that separates the rooms, Hatley’s design is haunting. From a claustrophobic drawing room that looms upon the characters’ dialogue, to a glorious radiant sunrise that has the set glowing from within, punctuating Oswald Alving’s (Jack Lowden) “give me the sun” with perfection, Mumford’s lighting is nuanced. Ghosts is a fine testament to ensuring that a creative team understands and collaborates effectively to bring forth a vision that is shared but holds strong on individual merits.

Eyre’s adaption may give Ghosts a life that ignites with its 90 minutes but it does cause some causalities along the way. Certainly Lowden’s Oswald is handled with a crumbling affection and with an overwhelming fatigue that stifles the character (thankfully not the acting). Eyre does clip some of the enjoyment from Oswald’s gay Parisian life and story; condensed down it does feel somewhat that the character is short changed against that of his mother, who certainly steals the show. Nonetheless, for a rising actor Lowden commands in his portrayal, which is gently revealed in his interactions with the sweet but fiery Charlene McKenna as Regina Engstrand. Where Eyre does succeed in his version of Ibsen’s text is by finding the humour within the characters of Jacob Engstrand (Brian McCardie) and Pastor Manders (Adam Kotz), who both bring a freshness to the roles that have otherwise been quite straight-laced.

There’s a distinct sharpness to Eyre’s Ghosts, partly achieved through the reworking of the play into a single act, but it also lies within Ibsen’s characters. Each one in turns erupts like a chemistry experiment overheating, and just like the orphanage that goes up in flames, so do the characters, causing a ritual cleansing of their sins, the flames licking around them. It’s easy to see why Ghosts moved audiences during its original Almeida run; it’s a gift of a play that delivers repeatedly, both in direction and in its acting.

Ghosts is playing at the Trafalgar Studios until 8th March. For more information and tickets, see the ATG Tickets website.