Richard Eyre exorcises Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Almeida

Saturday 28th September 2013 (preview)

The great thing about going to see a play by Henrik Ibsen is that you tend to come out feeling as though your family is normal. ‘Ghosts’ is a particularly good example of a family drama which holds nothing back, described in some of the original reviews as ‘an open drain’ and ‘literary carrion’.  The play followed ‘A Doll’s House’, and seems like a perverse sequel with a dire warning of what the consequences might have been if Nora had not walked out on her family.  Ibsen himself said that he felt compelled to write it.

One major reason to see this revival at the Almeida was another chance to see Will Keen, last seen by us as Macbeth in Cheek by Jowl’s 2010 production when he delivered an outstanding performance in a stripped down interpretation which really allowed the text to speak for itself.  Add the credentials of the Almeida and co-star Lesley Manville and this was a must-see.

The title encompasses the subject matter in the broadest possible sense.  A more literal translation would be ‘things that walk again’, and here there are ghosts a-plenty, whether the ever-present spirit of the dead husband and father, the legacy of the lies and fear of scandal which pervaded the central marriage, or the inner demons of each of the characters.  Helene Alving is about to open an orphanage which she has built in honour of her husband, dead for ten years, with the help of her ‘spiritual adviser’ and friend Pastor Manders.  During the play we learn how this marriage was a sham, a performance tightly controlled by Mrs Alving for the sake of her standing in society and for her son, whom she sent away while still a child for his own protection.  When her son returns with his own devastating news, the scene is set for an exorcism to remember.

Richard Eyre directs his own version of the play with a straight-through running time of ninety minutes (well, closer to a hundred in the preview we saw).  It doesn’t feel as though anything is missing, and the lack of an interval greatly enhances the sense of momentum as this family’s pandora’s box is opened, its secrets never to be contained again.  The language feels fresh and allows us to appreciate the modernity of the subject matter without having to make allowances for any quaint turns of phrase – it certainly doesn’t sound like a translation of a nineteenth century play.  Tim Hatley’s design also complements the clear direction by using a combination of mirrors and transparent panels to reveal the dining room behind the main set, and the outdoor scene beyond.  Hence, we occasionally half-see characters flitting around behind, flirting, eavesdropping or hiding, adding to the sense of a ghostly presence in the house.

Will Keen doesn’t disappoint as Pastor Manders, a character who begins the drama thinking he has the moral high ground, having fought to control his emotions so that he could do the right thing, only to discover that it has been a Pyrrhic victory, and that his dearly held beliefs have led him to his own personal hypocrisy.  Keen transmits the emotional turmoil of a man who is barely under control through his physicality, which never lets us doubt that he has reached his elevated position at a huge personal cost, even if he does not fully know it.  As his world unravels he is a force of energy with no purpose, almost comedic at times, but never one-dimensional.  As Helene Alving, Lesley Manville shows her strength of character through a stoical, still, presence, almost passive and biddable at first, growing in stature as she is tested throughout the play in her quest to put her past behind her and secure a legacy which will satisfy everyone.  In a subtle, intelligent performance she takes us with her on her character’s unenviable journey.  Jack Lowden plays Oswald as a passionate young man, who is instantly out-of-place in the stuffy Norwegian home, having spent most of his life in sunnier climes.  When he describes his feelings of suffocation we can sense it already.  Brian McCardie is engaging as Manders’ unlikely drunken nemesis Jacob Engstrand, and Charlene McKenna reveals both vulnerability and toughness as his adopted daughter Regina, the other victim of Mrs Alving’s attempts to keep up a facade of respectability.

We only really have one criticism of the production, and that is to do with that favourite subject of ours, restricted view seating.  We had never realised before how many of the seats in the Almeida auditorium are sold as restricted view – we estimate a quarter to a third of all the seats.  This helps to provide the occasional bargain, and it would be churlish to expect a perfect view of the stage from our cheaper, partially restricted view seats.  On this occasion, exasperated by the Almeida’s policy of not allowing us to purchase seats online which leave a single seat (look at the seating plan to see how tricky this can be!) we opted for seats on either side of the circle and decided to compare notes afterwards. Between us we certainly saw all of the action, but boy did we also miss substantial parts of it, not least the dramatic ending which was completely obscured from view from one of the sides.  This couldn’t really be described as ‘partially restricted’, and one wonders if the director gave any consideration to this issue at all.  It’s one thing to have a restricted view, but key scenes need to be seen by everyone, and this could easily have been achieved by more imaginative blocking.  If that results in some restricted view seats being ‘upgraded’, all the better.

Even this niggle, however, didn’t ultimately detract from an excellent production – a worthy addition to the long list of revivals of this compelling play.

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