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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
GHOSTS
at Trafalgar Studios

HAUNTING PRESENCE
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Lesley Manville and Jack Lowden/ Ph: Hugo Glendinning

Few, if any, 19th century plays shattered more taboos and caused more outrage than Ibsen’s powerful, trail-blazing drama Ghosts. Written in 1881, its publication caused something of a scandal. No theatre in Norway would touch it, and it was first performed in Chicago in 1882 by a group of Danish and Norwegian amateurs for the benefit of Scandinavian immigrants. Needless to say, its subject matter (incest, venereal disease (syphilis), euthanasia) and its theme (the sins of the fathers being visited on their children) also offended Britain’s straitjacketed Lord Chamberlain, who banned the play outright.
 
“Wretched,” “deplorable,” “loathsome,” “dirty,” “revolting” and “blasphemous” were some of the epithets predictably hurled at it. Director Richard Eyre’s new adaptation (transferred to the West End from the Almeida Theater) is more explicit than some others I’ve seen, effectively banishing all traces of the stodginess and heavy handedness that bedevil more literal versions. As a result, it allows contemporary audiences to feel something of the visceral shock their 19th century predecessors must have experienced over 130 years ago.
 
As well as confronting taboo subjects, Ghosts is also a criticism of Norway’s repressed bourgeois society, its main character being Helene Alving, a widow in denial of every aspect of her life, including the unhappiness of her marriage to an alcoholic philanderer, the venereal disease he passed on to her beloved bohemian son Oswald, and her pent-up, ongoing lust for Pastor Manders, the family’s self-righteous spiritual adviser whose bumbling touch turns everything to ash (quite literally on one occasion).
 
Apart from the crispness of Eyre’s adaptation, what also distinguishes this brilliant production is the speed at which it moves. Eyre stages the piece without an interval, allowing the drama to unfurl with the intensity of a Greek tragedy. It’s all over in about 90 breathless minutes and the effect is shattering.
 
This is also a superbly acted production, with Lesley Manville in towering form as Mrs. Alving, a woman haunted by the ghosts of her tormented past. She brings a painful intensity to her relationship with her dying son Oswald – who, as harrowingly played by Jack Lowden, emerges as a genuinely tragic character rather than a man wastefully destroyed by a life of debauchery.
 
Will Keen manages to find facets to the tunnel-visioned Pastor Manders absent from most interpretations I’ve seen; while Charlene McKenna is impressively feisty and single-minded as Regina, the Alving’s maid who, unbeknownst to a besotted Oswald, turns out to be his half sister.
 
The excellent and beautifully lit (by Peter Mumford) set is by Tim Hatley, whose transparent back wall allows us to witness, ghost-like, the hovering presence of characters even when they’re meant to be off-stage. A production to cherish.

 


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