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Review: Ghosts (HOME, Manchester)

Polly Findlay directs this new take on Ibsen's classic starring Niamh Cusack

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Point of view changes everything. With a shift of perspective, a happy marriage becomes a strained charade; faith withers into doubt and hypocrisy. In Polly Findlay's new production, Ghosts is full of slanted angles and hidden vantages. Johannes Schütz's angular grey set, full of doorways, nooks and crannies, even shunts the audience into a different way of looking at Ibsen's play. His design twists the Alvings' troubled home and thrusts it forward into the stalls, its corner jutting out of the naturalistic picture frame.

Placed at this strange angle, everything on stage has a slightly uncanny edge. It's easy to believe, in this off-kilter house, that the ghosts of the past are returning to haunt Helen Alving (Niamh Cusack). As Helen prepares to open a children's home in the name of her husband, her bid to lay his painful memory to rest instead stirs more old demons. Meanwhile, it's soon hinted that the homecoming of her son Osvald (Ken Nwosu) heralds more than blissful reunion.

Ibsen's play is heavy with foreshadowing and metaphor. Rather than lightening these aspects, Findlay's production embraces them, progressively layering on the unease and claustrophobia. There are little moments, too, of almost nightmarish unreality, as if the characters really have become the ghosts that Helen suggests we all are. And between scenes, Emma Laxton's soundscape of overlapping, distorted voices further lifts the piece out of its apparent naturalism. This effect jars at first, but by its climactic final use it's genuinely, queasily unpleasant, compounding the messy tragedy of the narrative.

There's more than a touch of melodrama to the play's successive revelations, but David Watson's crisp new version manages to make it all feel strikingly contemporary. Social norms might have changed, but somehow it's still utterly plausible that Helen would hide her husband's failings for the sake of family and community. Much of this is down to Cusack's nuanced interpretation of the role. Restlessly flitting around the space, she's a bundle of nervous energy, itching with hopes and regrets. We get hints, too, of the smile she has long plastered over suffering, and a sense that pretending might sometimes come more easily than the long-buried truth she agonises over.

While Cusack's Helen is at the centre of the piece, there are no bit parts here. One of the real achievements of Findlay's production is to make each of the five characters feel meaty and complex, from Nwosu's fearful Osvald to conflicted man of the cloth Pastor Manders (Jamie Ballard). Even Engstrand and Regine, seemingly the minor roles, come vividly to life. William Travis's hapless Engstrand injects a few welcome doses of humour without ever becoming simply ridiculous, while Norah Lopez Holden makes a fascinating and enigmatic Regine.

Helen sees life as an inescapable cycle: a merry-go-round of the dead leading the living, ghosts holding our hands and tugging us towards the same old tragedies. That same sense of inevitability seeps through Findlay's production, which marches – elegantly but unstoppably – towards its unsettling conclusion. Whatever angle you look at it from, it seems, the past is unavoidable.

Ghosts runs at Home until 3 December.

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