This review is of the show's run at the Almeida Theatre in October 2013.
Ghosts’ is always a daunting proposition to a theatregoer. With its themes of inherited sin, terminal illness, unwitting incest and the impossibility of redemption, it portends a depressing night out. Yet Richard Eyre’s stunning production is both humorous and deeply affecting, invigorated throughout by the sense of each individual’s passionate struggle for freedom. Despite the play’s devastating conclusion, you feel as if you’re witnessing the cracks in nineteenth-century culture that prepare the way for the more liberal consensus of the twentieth.
We first see the characters through a glass – not darkly but dimly. Tim Hatley’s beautiful set (enhanced by Peter Mumford’s painterly lighting) creates the family house as a series of semi-reflective walls. At some points we can see through to the Nordic firs and the sky outside. At others it feels as if the walls are closing in.
The sense of the fight to be liberated from the past starts with Charlene McKenna’s indignant spirited maid, Regina, who believes her father is the alcoholic carpenter Engstrand. Yet it’s when Will Keen’s extraordinary Pastor Manders enters that the whole temperature of the production changes. He is both the funniest and the most terrible aspect of the whole evening – the kind of man who would clearly sleep on sandpaper for fun. With his clipped tones, nervous tics and self-flagellating morality, he embodies everything that is wrong with the established church at the same time as demonstrating its power.
As Helene Alving, Lesley Manville is magnificent – demonstrating both the spirit and acute intellect that should have seen her liberated from her philandering husband. When she declares ‘This house was a university of suffering for me’ you can feel the weight of her desperate inheritance.’ And as Oswald, Jack Lowden embodies the dignity and world-weariness of a free spirit who has to realise he was doomed before birth. A triumph – the combination of the intelligent performances and the mesmerising aesthetic makes this the most lucid and affecting version of the play I have ever seen.
By Rachel Halliburton
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Excellent production,great acting and perfect venue for an Ibsen play. Play covers many universal themes and was enthralling. Do not miss it!
After reading the long winded comments of Alicia, i would like to say that the final scene was everything I could ever want from a play as good as Ghosts. The ending is so vital in which Leonard (I don't know him personally) in my opinion pulls off a masterstroke. The music and the lights changing orange and red add a very atmospheric feel and draws you in closer, especially as I was in the highest row in the Trafalgar, the tension left me nervous. The cast were excellent in a play that provides lots to talk about.
I was going to write a reply to Alicia's comments on my sound design for Ghosts, and then I ploughed through it again and thought "why bother?" She obviously has no concept of how a show's put together, so it's really not worth it.
Ibsen‘s claustrophobic classic is performed in an uninterrupted 90 minute stretch; as the tension rises to fever pitch, and the characters get more and more distressed, the climactic ending leaves the audience in shock – one can only imagine how Manville deals with the aftermath every evening. The tears were still rolling down her cheeks and she could barely muster a smile as she bowed to the loud and heartfelt applause with the rest of the five-strong cast. However, whilst naturally Helene is probably the most demanding part, going through such emotional turmoil as she does, the rest of the cast also have a lot of the play to bear on their shoulders. Jack Lowden as Oswald gives a very impressive performance of a son trying desperately to pretend to himself and others around him that all is well whilst concealing a soul-destroying secret. (A small, incredibly shallow, side note – my friend Megan and I were particularly dazzled by Lowden’s ability to pop champagne corks so smoothly he could have been a bartender. Now that is skill.) Charlene McKenna was likewise sincere and also comedically tragic in her role as Regina, the maidservant who is infatuated with Oswald, but who doesn’t know the darkness the lurks in her past and threatens her future happiness. Her ‘father’, Jacob (Brian McCardie) shows himself over the course of the play to be so much more Christian and kind than the pastor, Manders (Will Keen) who is just the most hypocritical, pathetic man there ever was. The actors really show Ibsen’s unusual (at the time of writing) sympathy for women and the lower classes; like in ‘A Doll’s House', the wealthy, powerful man is shown to be much weaker than the women who sacrifice their lives and happiness for them and get little, or nothing, in return. It is a play of thwarted human potential, in each and every character. As you can imagine, it is a play ahead of it’s time, dealing with feminism, sexual morals, arranged marriage, incest, sexual disease and, finally, euthanasia, as the play ends with Helene having to make one of the most agonising choices a person, and particularly a mother, could ever have to make. Not to give it away or anything. The finale was one of the most spectacular things about the play; as the stage was flooded in violent, passionate reds and oranges, and Oswald’s pitying cries combined with his mother’s desperate sobbing. The set was perfect, in my opinion – closed and claustrophobic, isolated and dark, with the rain hammering down outside, it’s easy to see why this sombre and depressing atmosphere would affect its residents. The audience are fully drawn into the enclosed world through this setting, and the expert and extraordinarily intensive acting which is only heightened by the close proximity of the audience to the action. The translucent wall behind the main part of the stage allowed us a view of what goes on behind closed doors and cleverly evoked the eponymous ghosts that haunt Helene. My only small problem was a tendency to melodrama, especially on Helene’s part, though this was more a fault with the script than the acting. And perhaps I’m just cold-hearted, unsympathetic and overly-critical… Although, saying that, I’m still going to give this production maximum marks; tense, thoughtful, dramatic and superbly acted, it well deserves its West End-transfer. Go and see it if you possibly can.
Absolutely loved it and would go and see it again! Five excellent actors and actresses who created an atmosphere of intrigue and angst. Seats were a little uncomfortable but the 90 min went by in a flash. Fantastic and touching ending
Morality, malady, deviance…such is the world constructed before us by Richard Eyre, Britain’s foremost director, in his shiningly brilliant production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. Appropriately titled for this autumn season, Ghosts doesn’t fail to shock, question and lead its audience through a fallen beauty that is dazzling and yet somehow extremely pertinent to our times. Widow Helene Alving (Lesley Manville) lives in a skeletal mansion that at once seems to brighten and dim with her emotion. She harbours a dreadful secret, the repression of which has brought Helene to the brink. Now, with the return of her artist son Oswald (Jack Lowden), she must finally unshroud the truth and present its hideous form, no matter what the cost. Adam: Entering the theatre, I thought I knew what I was in for. The framework of Ibsen reminds one of an ever-encroaching black night, readying itself to engulf the audience in a cloud of depressive defiance. And yet, upon taking my seat, I could not help feel that this production cast Ghosts in a whole new light. An airy feel that led me to believe that liberation was within reach, a tantalising figment that might just be snatched up. In essence, Ghosts is a work on 19th century morality – the ever present tug between the upright and moral (or the stuffy and oppressive), and the carefree and creative (or irresponsible and selfish). While one might think these debates were laid to rest along with all the dead religiosity that corseted Victorian society, it seems that we were mistaken. Organised religion (and ideologies in general) still preach to us, whether it is preventing women from wearing the hijab, extolling us to marry traditionally or even telling us what not to eat. In society, there are always those who wish to restrict (or is it protect?) the freedoms of others, as much today as in Ibsen’s time. Ghosts wrestles with extremes, and through this we are left wondering how we can travel a moderate path that avoids oppression AND unrestricted hedonism. For each type of indulgence, religious or libertine, results in a destruction, as we see in the tragically upsetting undoing of Helene’s son. Lowden’s portrayal lends itself to the Bridesheadian epitome of the disaffected, bored and damaged scion returning home after his revels in Europe. Through a sensitive and considered performance, Lowden explains to us the pain of bitter fruits bestowed to him from the past – like all the characters, and arguable people, the mental shadows that inhabit the corners of his mind plague his every excruciating word. However, Ibsen is quite aware that presenting this work entirely as one of woe would not do, and as such provides us with a spot of comic relief in the form of Jacob Engstrand (Brian McCardie), the lowly father of the maid Regina. Using pity, wily tactics and other such methods, Engstrand lives off others while justifying his own parasitic position. However, McCardie’s bawdy fun can seem quite disturbing at times, creating the impression of devilish clowning with a definite malignant twist. His display of this character trait is magnificent and leaves one with a sense of double mind about the character. Alicia: Upon setting foot in the theatre, one is immediately arrested by Tim Hatley’s set design. There is your usual beautiful Victorian-esque drawing and dining rooms, but Hatley places a semi-transparent and murky wall between the two. While rapt by the dialogue on stage in the drawing room, one is also audience to the shadowed world of the dining room beyond and its inhabitants, like haunted ghosts of another time. Unfortunately, John Leonard’s sound design does not match the quality of other designs on the stage. While the ambient sound in the first couple of scenes help create a believable world, certain effects later on took me out of the scene entirely, providing a rather silly attempt at realism. And then, worst of all, the final and passionate scene between mother and son at the end of the play is ruined by an odd design/directorial decision to play really loud classical music while turning the entire scene orange and red. The design entirely took over the acting moment, just at the point when Manville and Lowden are giving their all. Yet, to be perfectly honest I am being very hard on these few moments, as I ultimately felt riveted during the entire performance. As mentioned by Adam, Lowden performs stunningingly. I have always felt that Ibsen’s male characters are relatively weak in comparison to their female counterparts, and thus on stage I usually waive them off as merely supports for their leading lady. However, Lowden performed his part amazingly, with just the perfect amount of weakness and support as to keep in line with Ibsen’s character while also retaining a sense of strength and independence that I found refreshing. Performances by the snake-like pastor Manders (Will Keen) and the feisty maid Regine (Charlene McKenna) are also stunning in their portrayals. And then there is Lesley Manville, who goes between fiery determination and shocking grief, bringing both love and pain to the forefront. One is completed exhausted at the end of the play having watched her on a rollercoaster of feeling. She is a wonderful force to be reckoned with. Final Thoughts: Top class performances from well-known stars directed by a master of the art makes Ghosts a must-see. A powerful production with many angles, this is 90 minutes of sheer psychology that will leave you fascinated, disturbed and touched.