OUR RATING: Do It!
Morality, malady, deviance…such is the world constructed before us by Richard Eyre, Britain’s foremost director, in his shiningly brilliant production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. Appropriately titled for this autumn season, Ghosts doesn’t fail to shock, question and lead its audience through a fallen beauty that is dazzling and yet somehow extremely pertinent to our times.
Widow Helene Alving (Lesley Manville) lives in a skeletal mansion that at once seems to brighten and dim with her emotion. She harbours a dreadful secret, the repression of which has brought Helene to the brink. Now, with the return of her artist son Oswald (Jack Lowden), she must finally unshroud the truth and present its hideous form, no matter what the cost.
Adam: Entering the theatre, I thought I knew what I was in for. The framework of Ibsen reminds one of an ever-encroaching black night, readying itself to engulf the audience in a cloud of depressive defiance. And yet, upon taking my seat, I could not help feel that this production cast Ghosts in a whole new light. An airy feel that led me to believe that liberation was within reach, a tantalising figment that might just be snatched up.
In essence, Ghosts is a work on 19th century morality – the ever present tug between the upright and moral (or the stuffy and oppressive), and the carefree and creative (or irresponsible and selfish). While one might think these debates were laid to rest along with all the dead religiosity that corseted Victorian society, it seems that we were mistaken. Organised religion (and ideologies in general) still preach to us, whether it is preventing women from wearing the hijab, extolling us to marry traditionally or even telling us what not to eat. In society, there are always those who wish to restrict (or is it protect?) the freedoms of others, as much today as in Ibsen’s time. Ghosts wrestles with extremes, and through this we are left wondering how we can travel a moderate path that avoids oppression AND unrestricted hedonism.
For each type of indulgence, religious or libertine, results in a destruction, as we see in the tragically upsetting undoing of Helene’s son. Lowden’s portrayal lends itself to the Bridesheadian epitome of the disaffected, bored and damaged scion returning home after his revels in Europe. Through a sensitive and considered performance, Lowden explains to us the pain of bitter fruits bestowed to him from the past – like all the characters, and arguable people, the mental shadows that inhabit the corners of his mind plague his every excruciating word.
However, Ibsen is quite aware that presenting this work entirely as one of woe would not do, and as such provides us with a spot of comic relief in the form of Jacob Engstrand (Brian McCardie), the lowly father of the maid Regina. Using pity, wily tactics and other such methods, Engstrand lives off others while justifying his own parasitic position. However, McCardie’s bawdy fun can seem quite disturbing at times, creating the impression of devilish clowning with a definite malignant twist. His display of this character trait is magnificent and leaves one with a sense of double mind about the character.
Alicia: Upon setting foot in the theatre, one is immediately arrested by Tim Hatley’s set design. There is your usual beautiful Victorian-esque drawing and dining rooms, but Hatley places a semi-transparent and murky wall between the two. While rapt by the dialogue on stage in the drawing room, one is also audience to the shadowed world of the dining room beyond and its inhabitants, like haunted ghosts of another time.
Unfortunately, John Leonard’s sound design does not match the quality of other designs on the stage. While the ambient sound in the first couple of scenes help create a believable world, certain effects later on took me out of the scene entirely, providing a rather silly attempt at realism. And then, worst of all, the final and passionate scene between mother and son at the end of the play is ruined by an odd design/directorial decision to play really loud classical music while turning the entire scene orange and red. The design entirely took over the acting moment, just at the point when Manville and Lowden are giving their all.
Yet, to be perfectly honest I am being very hard on these few moments, as I ultimately felt riveted during the entire performance. As mentioned by Adam, Lowden performs stunningingly. I have always felt that Ibsen’s male characters are relatively weak in comparison to their female counterparts, and thus on stage I usually waive them off as merely supports for their leading lady. However, Lowden performed his part amazingly, with just the perfect amount of weakness and support as to keep in line with Ibsen’s character while also retaining a sense of strength and independence that I found refreshing. Performances by the snake-like pastor Manders (Will Keen) and the feisty maid Regine (Charlene McKenna) are also stunning in their portrayals.
And then there is Lesley Manville, who goes between fiery determination and shocking grief, bringing both love and pain to the forefront. One is completed exhausted at the end of the play having watched her on a rollercoaster of feeling. She is a wonderful force to be reckoned with.
Final Thoughts: Top class performances from well-known stars directed by a master of the art makes Ghosts a must-see. A powerful production with many angles, this is 90 minutes of sheer psychology that will leave you fascinated, disturbed and touched.