Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s 1881 play Ghosts at the Almeida Theatre is 90 galloping minutes of incest, STDs, adultery, fire and death punctuated by some unexpected black humour (although don’t go expecting knock-knock jokes).
Stranded on a blustery island in the middle of nowhere (although, my guess would be somewhere in the North Sea), Helene Alving has a past that she’d very much like to forget. The past, however, isn’t quite so keen to let go of her, and its ghosts rattle around the empty rooms of Helene’s gloomy house, haunting her unhappy present.
After years of suffering and deceit, Helene hopes to exorcise her demons by revealing the brutal truth about her late husband to their son, Oswald who’s back home after living it up as an artist in bohemian Paris.
This being an Ibsen play, Helene’s idea to erase the past with some good old fashioned truth-telling goes awry as soon as the theatre lights dim. The dirt gets raked up before I’ve barely taken a sip of my wine by bossy boots Pastor Manders (Will Keen) who manages to bully the strong, yet fragile Helene (an amazing Lesley Manville) into revealing some of the murkier bits of her past. Accompanying this showdown is the pattering of rain that provides the perfect glum soundtrack as Helene spills her demons much to the astonishment of the thought-he-knew-it-all Pastor . We learn, before they do, Oswald and Regina the maid (Charlene McKenna), who are making lovey-dovey eyes at each other, have a little more in common than an interest in French.
And then Oswald (Jack Lowden), a great hunky slice of Scandinavian blondness who looks like he could take all the slings and arrows of outrageous Norwegian misfortune, falls foul of syphilis, an inherited gift from his drunk, womanising father (thanks dad!). A particularly nasty sort of ghost.
The 90 minutes of gut-wrenching theatre plays out on largely dimly lit stage, the soft patter of rain setting the rhythm of the play. By the end, everyone and everything is in ruins, expect the man that Regina believes to be her father, Jacob Engstrand, who at least has his Home For Seamen (for now). Poor Lesley Manville looked traumatised as she look her well deserved bow.
The ghosts are all metaphysical, but Tim Hatley’s clever stage design separates the front of the stage from the back with a sheer screen, showing the characters in phantom form when they’re not ‘in action’.
Back in staid old Victorian England (and even Norway may have been a little bit uptight in the 18th century) the themes in Ghosts (sex, syphilis and sibling flirting) would have had audiences reaching for the smelling salts. The play’s shocks are different for a modern audiences, but it stills leaves you reeling – the brutality of life, the powerlessness of the wife, the deception, the betrayal – I needed more than just that glass of wine afterwards. But for all its doom, gloom and emotional brutality, Richard Eyre’s Ghosts is an engrossing and massively enjoyable hour and a half of heart-wringing theatre that will play in your head and heart for weeks to come.
by Suzanne Elliott