"An open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly." Barbs from the savage pen of Henrik Ibsen himself? No. Actually, it was The Daily Telegraph's response to the first London staging of Ghosts in 1891. In fact it wasn't until 1814 that the British finally lifted the subsequent ban placed on this authoritative drama.
The historical overview, suggesting that Ibsen's portrayal of venereal disease reveals a comment on degenerate society, still holds weight. However, given that Ibsen finished the play in 1881, and doubtless intended it to have enduring powers, there's surely something more at work here. Alternatively, you could take the bleak view that Ibsen was so convinced of society's terminal decline that he was confidently able to predict enduring relevance for Ghosts.
In Robin Phillips's tense new staging we are faced with a lot of words but little movement. Thus, the performances of Francesca Annis (Helena Alving) and Anthony Andrews (Pastor Manders) come under even greater scrutiny. And neither disappoints remotely. Every nervous twitch and gesture of restrained passion is played out with dignified precision, and the duo are a joyous privilege to behold.
Meanwhile, Paul Farnsworth's superb design only serves to enhance the claustrophobic tension within the drawing room of a rainsoaked Bergen house. Steep banks of cloudy mirrors and sloping walls press down ominously, with sombre colours representing the stark, mountainous landscape beyond.
We open with the housemaid being entreated by her downtrodden father to come and work in his new dockside hostel. She is offered the chance to provide "singing and dancing... and so on" as the sailors might require. Into this seamy scene steps the commanding Andrews as Pastor Manders, and his opening exchanges with Mrs Alving lead us to suspect hidden depths to their relationship.
Indeed, relationships are central to Ibsen's narrative as one after another crumbles under the weight of history. Only the ceaseless mother love of Mrs Alving for her decadent son Oswald (an excellent Martin Hutson) really survives the wreckage.
Ibsen clearly intended Mrs Alving to represent the oppressed status of women in the community, and her desperate pleas for freedom resound much today as they ever did. "Only the rebellious demand happiness in this life," barks Pastor Manders. But the humanity of her spirit, grittily displayed by Annis, remains unbowed through tragedy and loss.
Ghosts do undoubtedly linger in the present, as much as in the past, throughout the proceedings. And the shouldering of others' guilt by an unlikely guardian angel is the saving grace of one character. Maybe, in contemporary terms, Ghosts has much less power to shock us now. But its power to move us remains undiminished, signalling it as a truly imperishable work.