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Stephen Unwin's production at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, has a 'wrenching tragic power'

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Mark Quartley (Oswald) and Kelly Hunter (Mrs Alving)
© Francis Loney

Murky old play, Ibsen's Ghosts, but treated with his customary lucidity by director Stephen Unwin, making his swansong at the Rose (after six years) in this fine co-production with the company he founded twenty-one years ago, English Touring Theatre.

And he's superbly abetted by two of his talismanic ETT actors, Kelly Hunter as Mrs Alving, and Patrick Drury as the hypocritical Pastor Manders, so stiffly understated in his rectitude that lines such as, "It is not a wife's duty to judge her husband," or "The worst night of my life" (after the orphanage has burnt down, thanks to him) are met with disbelieving howls of laughter in the audience.

Ibsen changed European theatre in this play, but Hunter is not afraid of playing the inherent melodrama as the fraught, racked mother of a new bohemian, her son Osvald (Mark Quartley), who has returned from Paris a syphilitic, drunken wreck, the ghost of a dissolute father, the court chamberlain, whose portrait dominates the living room.

That room, designed by Simon Higlett, reproduces the drawings Edvard Munch provided for Max Reinhardt's 1906 production in Berlin (the play was premiered in Chicago in 1882, the year Nietzsche said, "God is dead"); dun-coloured walls, low lighting (by Paul Pyant) and an unexpected exterior vista of the clouds, rain and misty fjord.

Seemingly conventional, that scene is symbolically transformed at the end as Osvald cries out - or rather, mutters strangely - for the sun, and Hunter bravely follows Ibsen's hysterical stage directions, adding her own gloss on the vexed question of "assisted death."

The euthanasia issue is re-phrased, with shocking sexual ambiguity, as "a helping hand" where Regina the maid (Florence Hall) is concerned; Osvald has tempered his genetic destiny with a last carnal lunge at the badly deceived girl, who has been brushing up her French on the off-chance of an escape back to Paris with the dying painter.

Regina, like her bearded carpenter father, the half-crippled Engstrand (Pip Donaghy), is played with a Scottish accent, which here delineates social difference but also sharpens the hidden calculation in the old boy's own corruption and depravity; he was planning a sailors' home where his daughter would supply certain amenities.

The meshing of guilt, responsibility and exploitation is rivetingly revealed, except perhaps for the Pastor's susceptibility to Regina's charms, and his history of devotion to Mrs Alving. Drury's chilliness has obliterated that part of the story. Otherwise, the play, translated by Unwin using a mix of other versions, lands with a wrenching tragic power, the extreme opposite of a drawing room comedy.