An evening spent in the company of Henrik Ibsen is seldom a straightforward one. Amelia Bullmore’s remarkable new production of his 1891 play, Ghosts, captures the social complexities of the period, delivering suitably delicate and understated performances which develop quite spectacularly. It simmers with tradition in the early scenes and explodes with revelation in the later. The Sword of Damocles, forged in the treachery of the family annals, falls onto the play’s characters, one by one, in a quite sensational fashion.
It is no wonder that the play came under the scrutinizing monocle of conservative Late-Victorian audiences. Its treatment of incest and venereal disease may, even now in the twenty first century, leave some audience members feeling uneasy. Whilst the play’s high drama capitalises on the more shocking content of a Greek tragedy, the sensitivity of the script and the sensibility of the cast save the production from the unbelievable realms of melodrama.
Ghosts challenges the “grotesque lie” of reputation in the late nineteenth century. Helena Alving Maureen Beattie, the fascinating matriarch who “unpicks the stitches” of her society, seeks to galvanise the exalted memory of her adulterous husband, undermining her personal beliefs in defence of the esteemed family name. Her controlled existence is rocked by the arrival of son Oswald Steven Robertson, prompting stern words from ever reliable Pastor Manders Kevin McMonagle. Therein begin the tremors which threaten the stability of the family and the certainty of its survival.
Former Royal Shakespeare Company actress and television favourite Maureen Beattie’s performance as Mrs. Alving is outstanding. She effortlessly drifts between the quiet restraint of pre-Woman’s Liberation politics and the furious passions of a repressed iconoclast. Her performance mulls beautifully as the play develops. Kevin McMonagle’s portrayal of the more traditionalist Pastor Manders ably complements Beattie, finding a comedic chemistry which darts between intensity and tenderness.
This is Ibsen with a Scottish accent. It combines the turn of the century wit of George Bernard Shaw with the self aware social commentary of Jane Austen and seeks to challenge the opening night reviews of its original incarnation as “a loathsome sore unbandaged”. The sores of society, then and now, are made very real in this production.