When I read that this new version of Ibsen’s Ghosts by Rebecca Lenkiewicz intended to “give Ibsen’s language a modern twist”, I was worried that I'd have to endure another pointless updating. However my fears were unfounded, and what I experienced was a powerful, fresh, lucid and very moving production which reinforces the play's classic status.
This is a production worthy of the National Theatre, and in fact director Bijan Sheibani has been invited to direct a show there later this year. He has drawn excellent performances from the cast and manages to achieve a tantalising balance between the profound tragedy of the piece and the ironic humour inherent in each of the character’s delusions, yearnings, deceptions and hypocrisies.
Ghosts is a biting exposé of the sexual hypocrisy of Victorian society and when it was first staged in 1882 provoked one critic to describe it as “a dirty deed done in public”. Its sordid themes of adultery, incest and venereal disease shock even now and meant that for many years it could not be performed publicly.
Having sent her young son Osvald away to protect him from the influence of her husband, the Prodigal’s return after his Father’s death should be a time of joy and rebirth for Mrs Alving, but she is soon forced to unearth the past and is visited by ghosts who refuse to be silenced. Suzanne Burden is stunning and deeply moving as the long-suffering Mrs Alving battling to maintain a semblance of decency and respectability whilst reluctantly revealing the miserable life she has endured with her dissolute husband. All her hopes for redemption are dashed by the shattering news of Osvald’s illness and the realisation that the sins of the Father have lead to a dreadful inheritance.
Harry Lloyd is superb as Osvald, infusing him with a tragic fatalism and fragile vulnerability and Natasha Broomfield is equally strong as the aspirational and pragmatic housemaid Regine whose reaction to learning her true lineage is a subtle mix of horror and elation. Her self-serving guardian, Engstrand, is played by Jim Bywater who brings a delightful earthy avarice and humour to the angst-ridden proceedings.
In her youth Mrs Alving loved a trainee priest but when she sought sanctuary with him to escape her husband he sent her back to her inescapable destiny and duty as a wife. Pastor Manders, brilliantly played by Paul Hickey, has lost none of his pious and heartless hypocrisy when he returns to discuss the new orphanage being donated by Mrs Alving as a memorial to her husband (in truth a ploy to spend all his money thus preventing it from tainting Osvald). His insistence that the building is not insured in case his flock accuse him of not trusting in God’s protection is his ironic and delicious downfall.
The splendid set by Alex Eales, atmospheric lighting by Jon Clark and haunting sound design by Emma Laxton all contribute to one of the best productions I have seen this year and certainly the best production of Ghosts I have seen in a long time. The Arcola goes from strength to strength.
- Keith Myers