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Ghosts, Duchess Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Ghosts, Duchess Theatre

Ghosts, Duchess Theatre

Iain Glen makes directorial debut with a straightforward take on Ibsen

Ghosts: Iain Glen and Lesley Sharp as Pastor Manders and Mrs Alving

It is difficult for modern audiences to appreciate just how shocking Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts was when it was first published in 1881. Its sexual and syphilitic storyline - how the sins of the fathers are visited upon their sons - was considered immoral, loathsome even, and audiences must have felt deeply uncomfortable watching their Victorian, Christian hypocrisies laid bare. So how to make Ghosts relevant to today’s theatregoers?

In Frank McGuinness’s rather pedestrian version, much of the play’s moral outrage becomes incidentally comic - a reference to unmarried couples living together brings forth a heated “Filth!” from the upright Pastor Manders (Iain Glen, here also making his directorial debut). And what is a coda to the original play - Oswald’s plea to be assisted in his suicide by his mother when his syphilis takes fatal hold - here leaps straight out of today’s news pages and documentaries. But the heart of the play remains the burdens of duty - to God, husbands, parents, children - that weigh heavily on each of Ibsen’s characters, and in Glen’s straightforward and often static production we see the dangers of secrets and lies within the family.

We are in the rainy Norwegian fjords, where Mrs Alving (Lesley Sharp) is preparing for the opening of an orphanage that will be a memorial to her late husband. Her son, Oswald (Harry Treadaway), an artist, returns home as she discusses the celebrations with the sermonising Manders. Mrs Alving is keen to lay the ghost of her husband, Captain Alving, who died 10 years before, and we learn that as a newlywed she realised she had married a dissolute man and left him. She sought refuge with Pastor Manders, who made her return to him because, he said, it was her wifely duty. But in taking the advice - from her priest, or her putative lover, we are never clear - Mrs Alving inadvertently caused the events that now, more than 20 years later, unfold catastrophically.

Having been sent home, Mrs Alving sacrificed her happiness to create the fiction of a happy family. In trying to protect him from the horrible reality of his father’s whoring, she sent Oswald away, but kept her husband’s bastard child close at hand as her servant. And now, as Oswald, who himself has led a bohemian life in Paris, falls for his half-sister, the truth finally comes out.

Glen gives a nuanced performance as the Pastor, suggesting the vulnerabilities - sexual thoughts, too - that lie beneath the brimstone, although he delivers his lines with an extraordinary accent that starts in Cornwall and meanders to Scotland by way of Lancashire. Sharp, fresh from The Rise and Fall of Little Voice elsewhere in the West End, gives another compelling performance, while solid support comes from Malcolm Storry as the cynical carpenter Engstrand and Jessica Raine as the opportunistic maid Regine. Treadaway gives an actorly portrayal of Oswald - one moment the fey artist, the next a twitching syphilitic - that underwhelmed me.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design, with lighting by Oliver Fenwick, is all ice whites and blues, and expertly mirrors the coldness of this house of ghosts.

 

MORE IBSEN ON THEARTSDESK

The Master Builder, Almeida Theatre (2010). Passions blow hot and cold in this uneven production starring Gemma Arterton and Stephen Dillane

Emperor and Galilean, National Theatre (2011). Power and pace help to exhume Ibsen's Romano-Christian epic starring Andrew Scott

Judgement Day, The Print Room (2011). Ibsen's last play has its issues but emerges strongly in new adaptation with Michael Pennington

The Lady From the Sea, Rose Theatre, Kingston (2012). Joely Richardson takes on the Ibsen heroine her mother and sister made their own

A Doll's House, Young Vic (2012). Period setting yields a contemporary tragedy adapted by Simon Stephens and starring Hattie Morahan

Hedda Gabler, Old Vic (2012). Ibsen's heroine draws new depths from the West End's sweetheart Sheridan Smith (pictured)

Love's Comedy, Orange Tree Theatre (2012). Early Ibsen finds the playwright in his awkward adolescence

A Doll's House, Royal Exchange (2013). Ibsen in the round loses none of its power to cast a spell

Public Enemy, Young Vic (2013). The horrors of local politics still chime in Richard Jones's queasy production of an Ibsen masterpiece

Ghosts, Almeida Theatre (2013). Richard Eyre and Lesley Manville shine light into Ibsen's dark thriller of family misfortunes

Peer Gynt, Théâtre National de Nice (2014). Irina Brook's song-and-dance Ibsen entertains, but misses the darker shades

The Wild Duck, Belvoir Sydney (2014). Heartbreaking adaptation mixes naturalism and forensic examination

Little Eyolf, Almeida Theatre (2015). Strong women and one weak man in Ibsen's swift study of isolation and guilt

The Master Builder, Old Vic (2016). Ralph Fiennes stars in Ibsen's unsettling mix of the real and the supernatural

Hedda Gabler, National Theatre (2016). Ivo van Hove makes an uneven Southbank debut

In Frank McGuinness’s rather pedestrian version, much of the play’s moral outrage becomes incidentally comic

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