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Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen directed by Stephen Unwin at The Rose Theatre Kingston

GhostsWhere was Ibsen to go after A Doll’s House? Having articulated the proto-feminist rage of Nora in her marital bondage, what was the next dust-sheet he would pull from his country’s bourgeois and professional interior?

Ghosts holds the answer, and there is both a moral and chronological consistency in this production at Kingston’s Rose by English Touring Theatre coming so soon after The Young Vic’s presentation of the preceding work.

What a difference a century makes. Incest, infidelity, institutional hypocrisy, assisted suicide, sexual disease and – whisper it – mental illness; these were the inadmissible colours on Ibsen’s palette, and his script was predictably turned down by virtually every theatre that set eyes on it.

Seeing it played out now in the bleak grey grandeur of Simon Higlett’s design, the ghosts of the title impart a wider sense than the continuing influence of Mrs. Alving’s dead husband. Behind her as she and the unreliable Pastor Manders pick through the consequences of her past behaviour, a jagged landscape lies in silhouette, awaiting illumination. As the story begins to supply this painful light, it is not just the people but the world which begat them and hence also the play that appear like one collective revenant.

Here is a writer – not yet old, but getting there – in a hurry, anatomising the toxic relationship between Mrs. Alving and her prodigally returning artist son Osvald; the shadowy circumstances of her maid Regina; the manipulations of the carpenter/conman Jakob Engstrand; the peculiar sensitivities of the pastor; the knock-on effects of the blaze which destroys the orphanage that Mrs. Alving had had built with her late husband’s money so that none of the inheritance should be passed down to Osvald. In the darkness beyond, the fire casts a sudden glare but is then gone again and clarification remains absent.

As with A Doll’s House and much late Ibsen besides, the truth is to be found in spite of as much as because of the words spoken. That is, their speakers take a position, whether social or spiritual, which turns out to be at odds with their own emotional necessity; it is the friction of these dysjunctions which heat the greater hyspocrisy. Watching the agony of Mark Quartley’s Osvald in the strengthening grip of inherited syhphilis, we are seeing a young man condemned to enact what should have been his father’s penance; living therefore as a ghost.

The Rose’s departing director Stephen Unwin takes the inevitable longueurs of the opening scene head-on. In this he is only being consistent with Ibsen’s defiance and saying, in effect: you need to hear what this widow and this pastor are saying to each other and I’m damned if I’ll skimp it. He draws a wonderfully chilly, edgy performance from Patrick Drury as Manders and a mounting, visceral display from Kelly Hunter as Mrs. Alving. As with Hattie Morahan’s acclaimed Nora in the Young Vic’s Doll’s House, a controlled explosion would be inadequate for the job in hand, which is nothing less than the destruction of a two-faced order. Hunter lets rip with a passion from which only the house lights can rescue us.

Light; that’s the key. Towards the end the text has a stage direction which is as daunting as it is simple: “The glaciers and peaks in the distance are bathed in morning light.” It couldn’t be more significant since the final lines of dialogue have Osvald muttering brokenly about the sun, the sun, as if it’s the last thing he wants to see, while his mother is prostrate with grief on the floor beside him. So this is a new character coming in through the window at the last opportunity. Call it the world. Lighting designer Paul Pyant doesn’t short-change on this, giving us a slow and blameless dawn that almost upstages the human monster-fade taking place in the foreground.

Review by Alan Franks @alanfranks

Ghosts is at the Rose Theatre Kingston @Rosetheatre to 12th October 2013

Osvald returns home from Paris to honour his dead father. As his mother begins to feel the presence of ghosts from the past around her, Osvald discovers that there is more to his mystery illness than he first thought. Only by uncovering the truth can they both be set free…

This production of Ibsen’s is inspired by the artist Edvard Munch’s extraordinary stage designs for the play previously only seen once, in Berlin in 1906. Ghosts is co-produced with English Touring Theatre, which Stephen Unwin founded 20 years ago. It will also mark his swan song as Artistic Director of the Rose. The production will go on a UK Tour after the run in Kingston.

Cast: Pip Donaghy (Engstrand) Patrick Drury (Pastor Manders) Florence Hall (Regina) Kelly Hunter (Mrs Alving) Mark Quartley (Oswald)

Thursday 26th September 2013


  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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