Ghosts, Shakespeare’s Globe, 2023
Photo: Marc Brenner
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Recommended



4 out of 5 stars

Hattie Morahan and Paul Hilton are superb in this intimate, empathetic version of the harrowing Ibsen classic


Time Out says

This gaspingly intimate revival of Ibsen’s scandalous 1881 play marks the first UK production since 2018 for Brit auteur director Joe Hill-Gibbins.

In another world we’d have seen a lot more of him of late: he was appointed artistic director of the influential touring company Headlong a few years back, but stepped down shortly thereafter, saying he was not the guy to lead the company through the pandemic.

Our loss was other countries’ gain – he’s done a lot of overseas work since. But finally we have this overdue, but welcome return. Hill-Gibbins is renowned as a provocateur, but you’re never going to make ‘Ghosts’ as provocative it was the first time around, when its groundbreaking depictions of STIs – plus a dollop of incest – scandalised Victorian London, ('a loathsome sore unbandaged’ according to the Telegraph) where it premiered.

Here, though, Hill-Gibbins has recentralised it as a story about love. As usual, there’s the deep, maternal love Hattie Morahan’s Helene Alving has for her ill son Osvald (Stuart Thompson): she has brought him up to admire his late father, hiding the truth about his philandering behaviour, tragically unaware that it will catch up with him anyway. Often this is made to feel overwrought, even creepy: here it’s not – the two have a touching, gentle rapport.

A production that’s like a warm glass of barbiturates

What feels boldest is the relationship between Helene and local priest Father Manders (the ever-excellent Paul Hilton). Manders is often depicted as a hypocrite or self-interested schemer, having rebuffed Helene’s advances in the past and now attached himself to her project to build an orphanage in the name of her husband.

But Hilton plays him superbly as a well-meaning, confused man whose affection for Helene is palpable. A couple of scenes in which the pair of them are virtually snogging are certainly amusing on one level. But there’s a sense that these people would be good for each other, were it not for the social and moral codes of the day.

Rosanna Vize’s set consists of a deep, fluffy carpet of indeterminate colour, with a mirrored back wall, and illumination from candles only: the darkness as much part of the set as its physical components. Nobody makes a sound as they move, and in the intimate space the actors are usually just a couple of feet from their reflections - the dimly-lit stage feels full of ghosts.

The patron saint of tragic women in plays by leftfield British directors, Morahan could do this role in her sleep – but it’s her willingness to rein Helene in that defines her performance. There are no fireworks here: it’s important to the production that Helene comes across as grounded and sympathetic, regardless of her terrible circumstances. Despite being one of the most gifted actors of her generation, Morahan has never seemed much interested in being a star - she serves the production brilliantly with a low-key, human turn.

A lot of directors like to put you through the wringer with ‘Ghosts’. In a way Hill-Gibbins goes for the opposite with a production that’s like a warm glass of barbiturates before a slip into oblivion. None of the choices made in the play seem to make much difference – the characters were doomed before it began, in Oswald’s case, before he was born. Less a tragedy than an ineffably sad slipping away.


£5-£65. Runs 1hr 40min (no interval)
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