Richard Eyre’s production of the Henrik Ibsen play Ghosts opens in a dreary family home with just enough light to make out the portrait of the late Mr Alving on the wall.
If it were possible to dissect a phantom, that is what we would be watching.
Ghosts is a homecoming night of the soul, centring around the construction of an orphanage in the father’s honour and the dismantling of his legend: a womanising debaucher who has given his son syphilis as part of his dark legacy. A sense of dread hangs over the house, and every minute the tension ratchets up further as Mr Irving’s true character (a womanising cruel bastard) is revealed.
A maid (Regina, played by Charlene McKenna) bustles about preparing for guests and is not best pleased when her drink addled carpenter father Jacob turns up, ragged and full of harebrained schemes about starting a club for sailors. She sees herself as different- she speaks French and dreams of visiting Paris and putting her education to good use.
Meanwhile Mrs (Helene) Alving (played by Lesley Manville) awaits the arrival of her old flame, Pastor Manders (Adam Kotz),who is meant to settle the affairs of an orphanage dedicated to her late husband.
Her artist son Oswald (Jack Lowden) is home from Paris for his father’s funeral. At turns bored, bohemian and sincere, he’s a troubled romantic with an ego to match his father’s.
Oswald controls the stage, bringing intensity and complexity to what could easily be a depressing production if it didn’t rattle along at such pace.
And the pastor in his moralising glory provides some much needed comedy.
His puritanical tirade against Oscar’s bohemian lifestyle and “improper” friends is a pure joy to witness.
Helene is the mother bearing bad news and plays her role perfectly- at turns bruised, independent, passionate and loving as she dissects her husband’s image as a heroic philanthropist.
The relationships between Oswald and Regina and Oswald and his mother are fascinating to watch and build to a brutal climax -handled sensitively and intelligently by Eyre.
But it’s peaceful too, the night giving way to a twilight as birdsong starts to break through the gloom. The onstage sunrise is beautiful.
Ibsen’s Ghosts, at the Almeida, is a smart production that never overplays its hand and left me feeling sympathy for all of the characters. Just don’t go to see it on a date.
words Oliver Rahman
Ghosts is showing at Trafalgar Studio One, 17 December 2013 – 8 March 2014 www.ghoststheplay.co.uk