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October 6, 2013 9:00 pm
By some spooky coincidence, there are several Ghosts around at the moment. Stephen Unwin’s new staging opened recently in Kingston upon Thames and here is a glittering, dark production from Richard Eyre that plays Ibsen’s drama brilliantly as a blistering endgame, the darkest hour before the dawn.
In one sense, Ibsen’s story, of the Alving family dealing with the fallout from the dead Captain Alving’s dissolute lifestyle, is of its period. When Oswald returns home with inherited syphilis, his mother realises that all her careful work to shield her son from his father’s misdeeds has been in vain. Over one dreadful night, the truth comes tumbling out. When it was first performed the play was condemned as “a dirty deed done in public”, but what Eyre’s fleet production (in his own new version) drives home is that it is not the spectre of venereal disease that is really shocking, it is Ibsen’s suggestion that the social structure itself is responsible for the devastation we see on stage. No wonder some people didn’t like it. And in this respect it feels as fresh and unsettling as ever.
Ibsen was obsessed with lies: consider Nora walking out of her empty marriage in A Doll’s House or Dr Stockmann taking on corruption in An Enemy of the People. In Ghosts he concentrates on Helene, a woman who has buried herself alive in a miserable marriage that all around her – family, church, society – insist is right for her. Her instinct has been damage limitation: she sent her son away, and, as the play opens, is opening an orphanage in her husband’s name to atone for his wrongdoings. But when the local pastor describes her marriage glibly, she starts talking. And once she starts, she can’t stop: she uncorks the truth bottle and just keeps pouring. In Lesley Manville’s superb performance she acquires a kind of reckless, exhilarated despair, tearing into institution after institution as she plunges on towards the play’s desolate ending in a committed act of purification.
There is great support from Will Keen as the manipulative, conniving pastor, Jack Lowden as Oswald, a lovely boy running to seed, and Charlene McKenna as the maid who discovers too that her life has been a lie. Tim Hatley’s set offers a realistic domestic interior, but with a translucent wall that suggests half-truths. It’s a play heavy with symbolism but Eyre embraces that: when the sun finally comes up it seems both awful and wonderful.
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