It is testament to the power of Ibsen’s writing that leaving the theatre after last night’s performance of Ghosts, over 100 years after its premiere, I heard an audience member comment: “Well, I’m quite shocked… That’s a lot to think about for a Tuesday night!” Indeed Ibsen’s script, once described by a reviewer in The Telegraph as a “positively abominable play … a dirty act done publicly … Crapulous stuff,” is an exceptional challenge for the economic cast of five actors. However the English Touring Theatre rose admirably to the task, providing a compelling drive to the final apotheosis.
Both Ghosts and its immediate predecessor, A Doll’s House, were written in the wake of the literary critic Georg Brandes’ call for literature “subjecting problems to debate.” James McFarlane described Ibsen’s response in these two plays as being “chiefly drawn to those problems stemming from the inhibitions set upon individual freedom and self-realization by social and institutional forces.” This was brilliantly encapsulated by Patrick Drury as Pastor Manders, embodying the corruption and hypocrisy of the established Lutheran church, drawing Mrs. Alving back to her ‘duty’ as a wife and mother regardless of the potential consequences. Set against the more ambiguous character of Engstrand, played by Pip Donaghy, the moral compass provided by the Pastor seems increasingly dubious before being exposed as entirely self-serving and prey to all the faults that he preaches against. Donaghy’s performance was continually illuminating, bringing not only moments of comic relief but negotiating the nuances of this character with a subtlety that was at times unfortunately absent from Florence Hall’s performance as Regina. This young maid, eventually revealed as the illegitimate child of Captain Alving, represents the striving for social mobility tackled in many of Ibsen’s plays (and by his contemporary, Strindberg, such as in his play Miss Julie and his novel The Red Room which also confront institutional hypocrisy, albeit from a very different perspective from Ibsen). I always imagine Regina’s character to have a certain naivety, exploited by those around her – she learns French based on a passing remark made by Osvald, which he later uses in the hope that he can manipulate her ‘joy of living’ to assist his suicide. While this naivety was brought beautifully to the fore when she is called forward to drink champagne with Mrs Alving and Osvald, the sense of devastation was perhaps lost to indignation in her final exit after her dreams of marriage to Osvald are shattered.
As an overall climax, however, the third act was one of the most visceral and effective moments of theatre that I have seen this year. Bernard Shaw noted that Mrs Alving and Osvald’s final scene is “so appallingly tragic that the emotions it excites prevent the meaning of the play from being seized and discussed”, and it is a balancing act of extreme virtuosity to negotiate bringing together the play’s ‘problems’ whilst convincing the audience that we are watching a mother lose her child to venereal disease. Although Kelly Hunter’s (Mrs Alving) occasional screams of hysteria verged on the border of histrionic, these were easily subsumed within the brilliant interplay between Mrs Alving and Osvald, played spectacularly by Mark Quarterly. Music was put to particularly good use in the production, continuing to surprise the audience even after Osvald’s final utterance of ‘The sun’. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of music as a frame for the acts, given that Ibsen’s plays inspired a large amount of incidental music in his time (the most famous example of which being Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt), a tradition that is often ignored in most modern performances.
In another nod to the play’s rich performance history, the sets were modelled upon Edvard Munch’s paintings for Max Reinhardt’s 1906 production for the opening of the Intimate Theatre in Berlin. From the floors the “same colour as diseased gums” (Reinhardt) to the towering black armchair as a symbol of patriarchal power and corruption (Munch based the sets on his own family home and based the armchair on that belonging to his abusive father), the set design managed to convey the cloying oppressiveness of the family home fraught with deception and both internal and external disease. Reinhardt said of this armchair that “Its black colour summarises completely the atmosphere of the drama”, and certainly when Osvald sits facing away from the audience, becoming just a cigar and pillar of smoke behind the high back of the chair, this immediately transforms him into the ghost of his father – or perhaps closer to the original Norwegian title Gjengangere, meaning literally “a thing that walks again”. The set design with the room to opening onto a depiction of the Norwegian mountains allowed for the symbolic transformation from the obscurity of the rain to the blinding light of truth breaking through with the dawn, to be foregrounded throughout, engulfing the stage in a flood of light that finally consumes both actors and audiences.
Although the topics of Ghosts are no longer ‘taboo’ subjects as such, it clearly still has the power to ‘subject problems to debate.’ Stephen Unwin’s rendition is an outstanding production, and comes highly recommended for the rest of its run at the Playhouse.
‘Ghosts’ is running at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday the 26th October; times and tickets are available from their website. For more information about the English Touring Theatre please visit their website