Ghosts, Gate Theatre, London

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The Gate is renowned for reinventing its tiny performance space for each production, but even by these standards it seems an egregiously bonkers idea to build a full three-walled box set (on a revolve!) leaving a playing area of less than three metres in each direction.

However, Lez Brotherston’s pine-walled Scandic cabin with its permanently rainy windows gives physical form to the claustrophobia that pervades Ibsen’s 1881 play and Anna Mackmin’s excellent production.

As the Alving family grapple with incest, arson, blackmail and hereditary syphilis in small-town Norway, they encounter time and again the suffocating priggishness and concern for appearances and bourgeois proprieties personified by Pastor Manders (Finbar Lynch, unusually young for the role but already thoroughly buttoned-up). As the social and moral requirements invoked by the Pastor leave Mrs Alving no room to move, nor does the set: it is barely possible to fit one chair and a stool between the piles of dangerously liberal books piled against the Alvings’ walls.

Mackmin eschews the temptation to make either Mrs Alving or her son Osvald demonstratively fervent in their resistance to this unyielding orthodoxy. Both Niamh Cusack and Christian Coulson base their characters’ contrariness on reason rather than passion. These are no banner-waving champions of free thought, nor rocks of quiet but palpable determination; they are simply people whose experiences have persuaded them that their course is as valid as any diktat from the pulpit.

The work of actors and director is grounded in Amelia Bullmore’s new version of the text. This is as unadorned as the set (she trims the three-act play to 95 minutes without interval) and forthright enough for Osvald to say, in as many words, for the first time in any translation I have known: “I have syphilis.” Bullmore also solves the problem that has bedevilled all other recent productions of the play I have seen: how to stop a modern audience responding with postmodern irony that trivialises the events portrayed. We still laugh in derision at the Pastor’s sententiousness, but he is not a mere pompous clown here, or a morally growling ogre.

I have long felt instinctively that this is Ibsen’s greatest play, without entirely knowing why; this masterly new version and magnificently stifled production give new strength to my conviction. It is his most fully human tragedy.

Tel 20 7229 0706

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