Following their superb All My Sons, The Octagon season continues with another solid revival of a classic family drama. Unusually, these two plays inhabit the same basic set and use the same four key actors (as well as obvious thematic similarities), therefore inviting direct comparison between the productions. In this respect, then, Arthur Miller’s WW2 classic ‘beats’ Ibsen’s morality fable, though there is still much to recommend this current production.
Following the death of her philandering husband, enlightened thinker Mrs Alving (Margot Leicester) seeks the guidance of her spiritual confidante Pastor Manders (George Irving) as she decides to build an orphanage, using her husband’s wealth. The arrival of her son Oswald (Oscar Pearce) from Paris, and his burgeoning relationship with housemaid Regina (Vanessa Kirby) brings about a series of disturbing revelations, leaving Mrs Alving faced with a very difficult decision.
Writen in 1882, Ibsen’s play was considered controversial; society’s shifting moral compass means that whilst the play is no longer shocking to a contemporary audience, it is still an engrossing and thought-provoking tragedy.
David Thacker directs with a welcome precision and a lightness of touch, mostly maintaining a solid pace across the play’s wordy first act. The programme describes a lengthy translation process (attributed to Erik Skuggevik, Thacker, and the cast) which, at times, feels like watching the end result of an academic exercise.
There is no doubt that this is a seamless and fluid translation, but there are moments that feel a little under-rehearsed, and the kinetic energy between the actors isn’t always present. Also, the curious decision to relocate the action to Lancashire in the 1880s is unremarkable as it adds nothing to the text.
On the plus side, Patrick Connellan’s set is a flexible thing of beauty, and James Farncombe’s lighting shifts with subtlety and elegance, adding to the air of studied naturalism.
Once again, the majority of the actors are superb, lending the evening a much needed sincerity and gravitas. If Irving’s Pastor Manders seems a little shaky, this is offset by superb turns from Pearce and Kirby (emerging as a real star in the making), and Russell Richardson (as Jacob) lends an air of authentic Lancastrian humility.
However, it is Margot Leicester’s Mrs Alving that engages the mind and tugs the heartstrings. A notoriously difficult part, Leicester (seemingly incapable of delivering a bad performance) tackles the role with sensitivity and compassion, and, in her final scenes, is staggeringly good.
Overall, this is a sombre, thorough and intelligent reading of a classic tragedy. There is enough intrigue, suspense and moral dilemma here to have you talking long after you leave the theatre. A classy evening, despite the odd flaw.