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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
GHOSTS
at the Duchess

BUTTERFLY FLAPPING IN THE VOID
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Iain Glen and Lesley Sharp/ Ph: John Haynes

There is a deal to be struck between emotional realism and tragic gesture in Ibsen that the latest West End revival of Ghosts – always a play that never quite fulfils its mythic reputation – signally fails to acknowledge.
 
It’s partly a question of ideological conflict and spiritual guilt, but mainly the far simpler demand of: “Why are we doing this play in the first place?” To that, actor Iain Glen’s debut production has no convincing answer. An audience is left floundering in the wake of a whole lot of back story to characters they don’t much care about in the living moment.
 
Mrs Alving’s son Oswald has returned from Paris, sick with the brain-eating illness of syphilis that was genetically transmitted by his own dead father, who lived a life of debauchery under a cloak of respectability. Oswald sees a ray of hope in the flirtatious maid Regina who, it turns out, is his own half-sister, sired by his priapic pater.
 
Mrs Alving welcomes the man she once loved, Pastor Manders, to open the orphanage she has had built to pay for her husband’s sins. Unfortunately the orphanage burns down, and Regina dumps Oswald to begin a life of prostitution in the bordello her own father, the oafish carpenter Engstrand, is planning to build as a symbolical rebuff to care in the community.
 
This moral maze of mirrors is placed by Glen and his designer Stephen Brimson Lewis in a grey, antiseptic limbo where the ceaseless rain has fuzzed up the windows and the furnishings are decorated with only a vase of flowers and an architect’s model of the orphanage.
 
But in draining the play of any physical realism or texture, Glen also fails to compensate with any sort of emotional charge to the wretchedness of what happens. Ibsen is vague about the radical literature Mrs Alving is devouring, but the usually intense and sensual Lesley Sharp – who set fire to the West End in last season’s Little Voice revival – is even vaguer.
 
Sharp’s Mrs Alving is a trapped butterfly flapping in the void, helpless to negotiate the swirling currents around her but equally reluctant to show her own colours. Iain Glen, too, is way below his usual par as Pastor Manders, switching oddly between shades of Celtic accent and offering no more than a superficial account of the character’s moral turpitude and slipperiness.
 
The new “version” for the production of Nica Burns, Thelma Holt and Bill Kenwright is by Frank McGuinness (no literal translation is credited, shamefully, in the programme), but it doesn’t have the pungency or power of his Tony award-winning A Doll’s House some years ago, sounding suspiciously like an amalgamation of already available versions.
 
Compared to other memorable Oswalds – those of Adrian Dunbar, say, or Simon Russell Beale – Harry Treadaway’s is possessed and fidgety to the point of hysteria, rich in externalized symptoms but hollow and uninvolving at its centre, like so much in the production.
 
For such a fine roster of artists – and the parallel father and daughter relationship of Malcolm Storry’s bovine Engstrand and Jessica Raine’s tentative Regina is rooted merely in brush strokes of violence and suspicion – the acting generally is disappointing.
 
Lighting and sound by Oliver Fenwick and Richard Hammarton don’t conform to the standards we now expect even at the Donmar or the Almeida, and the grim sense of a close-knit group imploding at the touch of a self-destruct button, fanned by social hypocrisy, is entirely missing.
 
 

 

 


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