We're so used to regarding Ibsen as a classic, it's hard to imagine this play about the past, the curse of parents and small town convention, provoked cries of outrage when it was first premiered in London. No such outcome is likely to befall Anna Mackmin's revival at the Gate, though the play - 120 years on from its creation - still has the power to chill, not so much for its graphic portrayal of the effects of syphilis and questioning of family values as the fear it induces about illness itself.
At least, this is one aspect Amelia Bullimore brings out brilliantly in her new version. There is an agonising moment, right at the end of Mackmin's production, when Niamh Cusack's distraught Mrs Alving contemplates the imbecilic terminal state into which her once golden artist son, Osvald (a fine Christian Coulson), recently returned home from a bohemian lifestyle in Paris, has descended. Faced with destroying the being to which she once gave life, Cusack conveys every inch the emotional agony of any relative, especially a mother, confronted by an intolerable duty of care, to put a loved one out of his misery.
The production also detects some deliciously black humour lurking beneath the tragic story of the wife who spent a lifetime trying to cover up the truth about her former respected but dissolute husband. Sarah Smart brings a pert, cunning sense of calculation as well as vivacity to Regine, the maid born out of wedlock, whilst the faultless Paul Copley (as the `weak' Engstrand) finesses his blackmail on Finbar Lynch's stolid Pastor Manders with the skill of a master poker player.
However, Mackmin's production in other respects is ultimately disappointing. Lez Brotherston's oppressive wooden box and Perspex interior clearly takes its inspiration from Ibsen's Norwegian roots and reputation as a Naturalist dramatist. But its hermetic laboratory atmosphere - an impression reinforced by Olly Fox's lambent, melancholic score and Cusack's opening and closing silhouette, pressed up against the rain-drenched Perspex - has the effect rather of cramping Mackmin's usually incisive style.
Provincialism's small mindedness may find its physical manifestation here but Cusack and the rest often just look plain uncomfortable and sometimes, surprisingly, lack detail in their playing. Nor did I believe in Lynch's Pastor, supposed to epitomise the hypocrisy of prevailing convention. Calvinism's grim, guilt ridden legacy was never so lightly worn.