Infamously described by late 19th-century theatre critics as “loathsome”, “unutterably offensive” and “an open drain” upon its premiere, Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts may no longer have the same power to shock and outrage but, with its themes of congenital STIs, incest, euthanasia and other dark family secrets, it retains a grim fascination. That’s especially true when it crops up in as riveting a new version as this one by Joe Hill-Gibbins, getting the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’s tenth anniversary season off to a potent start.
Hill-Gibbins provides the adaptation as well as the direction and has cut the play down to a lean interval-free 100 minutes with the urgency of a thriller but also, under the SWP’s candlelight, an unsettling dream-like quality. Ibsen’s drama was ahead of its time with its naturalistic dialogue and pacing, and Hill-Gibbins, in this taut, tense, modern dress version, makes it entirely conversational, so that when the big dramatic moments come, they hit with shocking force.
This Ghosts comes laced with bitter humour and a surprising tortured sensuality: characters writhe on the floor, a bottle of champagne is emptied over somebody’s head, widow Helene Alving (Hattie Morahan) straddles her beloved son Oswald in an attempt to calm him, she flies at Pastor Manders (Paul Hilton) like an avenging fury, knocking him to the ground… it’s an impassioned, compellingly physical take on the play, but it feels completely in tune with what Ibsen wrote. The darkness referred to regularly throughout the text is a palpable, narcotic presence, like an encroaching, ever-strengthening threat.
The magnificence of the acting is a key factor in the production’s success. Morahan is unforgettable, a haunted figure whose internal conflicts between innate kindness, blind panic and impenetrable steel come swirling inexorably to the surface as her family house of cards starts to crash down around her. Equally remarkable is Stuart Thompson who invests Oswald with a mask of wry, debauched magnetism that occasionally slips to reveal the face of somebody staring hopelessly into the abyss. The final scene between mother and son, inventively staged to include the gradual, terrible extinguishing of the stage candles, is horribly moving.
Sarah Slimani is tough but warm, and as likeable as she’s inscrutable, as the young woman he believes could save him. Greg Hicks turns in a brilliant study of obsequious manipulation and slow-burn viciousness as her dishonourable father, and Paul Hilton, in a finely detailed performance, finds every note and layer in the self-regarding, deceptively dangerous Pastor, too closely bound up with the unhappy Alving family for comfort.
Designer Rosanna Vize, apparently taking her cue from syphilis-stricken Oswald’s description of his softening brain as being like “cherry red velvet”, has covered the entire stage floor with a profusion of lush, slightly shaggy scarlet material. Illuminated by the dim glow of candles, it initially looks atmospheric and inviting but as the play progresses, seems more and more like a toxic mire threatening to swallow the human figures whole. A giant mirrored wall at the back of the stage, suggesting that there is nowhere to hide and that all mistakes or untruths will be uncovered and magnified (even when actors turn upstage we see every facial expression), further adds to the sense of unease. It’s a striking design but the complete closing off of the rear of stage results occasionally in some slightly awkward blocking of entrances and exits.
The stranglehold of past misdemeanours on present-day lives, the ‘sins of the fathers’ being visited upon the offspring, and the irresponsibility of men imperilling women’s lives are dramatic themes that resonate down the ages, and Ghosts remains a gripping, involving watch. Hill-Gibbins’s bold, bleakly funny but intelligent reimagining of this little theatrical chamber of family horrors is compulsive and quietly revelatory. Haunting stuff.