sat 13/07/2024

Ghosts, Almeida Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Ghosts, Almeida Theatre

Ghosts, Almeida Theatre

Director Richard Eyre shines light into Ibsen's dark thriller of family misfortunes

Lesley Manville and Jack Lowden, lit up with horrorHugo Glendinning

In a moment of scalding intensity at the climax of Ghosts, terrified Oswald sees the sun. Throughout the rest of Ibsen’s celebrated drama about the sins of the past, light is fairly absent. Merely cataloguing the disasters that befall its heroine Mrs Alving would certainly indicate a play living up to Ibsen’s bad reputation as the leading dramatist of doom and gloom.

But that categorisation misses the excitement created by his ceaselessly taut plotting – it’s nothing less than a five-hander thriller – and the audience-grabbing pace of Richard Eyre’s steady-burn production.

Much of the tension of the 1881 play derives from the fact that everyone is defined by and trying to escape their past. Attempting to place a full stop at the end of a difficult widowhood, Mrs Alving (Lesley Manville) is about to open a neighbouring orphanage in the name of her heroic late husband. Her old friend and colleague Pastor Manders, with whom she built the orphanage, is anxious that the past strong attraction between them remain unacknowledged so that his reputation can remain intact. 

The more buried the secrets, the more everyone has to lie

Mrs Alving’s maid Regina (beady, ambitious Charlene McKenna), nursing a secret promise from Mrs Alving’s son Oswald (Jack Lowden) wants to run away to Paris with him and escape her class and her reprobate father Jacob (Brian McCardle). Jacob, a man with a past as dodgy as his present, wants control of Regina since he intends her to join him in the “home for seamen” he’s planning to run. Oswald, meanwhile, newly returned from Paris, is wracked by so-far-unspoken terror: he’s terminally ill with an unmentionable disease.

The more buried the secrets, the more everyone has to lie. And if that weren’t trouble enough, forward-thinking Mrs Alving, refusing to be hidebound by the small-minded society around her, changes the rules everyone lives by. Manville (pictured below, with Will Keen) shimmers with energy as she reveals the truth about her disastrous marriage to Will Keen’s ultra-fastidious Pastor. Forever neatening his jacket and smoothing his hair, Keen deftly presents a pillar of rectitude whose constant upright manner is at war with fiercely suppressed emotion.

Manipulation is the play’s motor. For good and ill, the revealing of truth produces guilty knowledge which characters use to their advantage. Chief among these is the disclosure of Regina’s parentage, a fact with appalling repurcussions seized on by everyone with further extraordinary turns of the screw.

The sure-footedness of Eyre’s direction is made clear whenever the characters obfuscate or lie. Instead of giving the game away with over-indicated subtext, the actors hold audiences rapt. Against all odds, Jacob has to argue himself out of a very tight corner with Manders and their confrontation remains on a knife-edge because McCardle outwardly appears wholly convincing while speaking what we know to be hastily made-up excuses.

One of the problems with the play is where to put the interval. Eyre’s highly effective solution is to play it without one. This not only underlines the connections between everything that happens and their dramatic consequences, it maintains tension since the action takes places over one terrible night.

The inexorable build-up of tension is beautifully calibrated not just by Eyre but by Peter Mumford whose evocative lighting of Tim Hatley’s glass-walled, necessarily period set shifts imperceptibly. The soft, grey intensity of a Hammershøi interior slips down to an exciting degree of darkness as the notably well-cast Manville and Lowden slug it out in their final showdown.

In keeping with the production’s tone, Lowden opts not to give away too much of Oswald’s terror too soon. Exuding the lanky lassitude of a golden boy gone to the bad, he only latterly displays physical wretchedness. It’s a risky strategy that, at the fifth preview, didn’t quite come off since it left Manville too little time to descend into horror as it hits her that he wants to tear away at her reason for living. As it stands, despite bold physicality between them, Manville’s nightmare currently  feels a shade considered and lacks upsetting abandonment. The tenor of the production, however, suggests that by the time you read this, they’ll have got there.



Ghosts, Duchess Theatre (2010). Iain Glen makes directorial debut with a straightforward take starring Lesley Sharp

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

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

Instead of giving the game away with over-indicated subtext, the actors hold audiences rapt


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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