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Review Round-up: Glen’s Ghosts Spooks Critics?

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Actor Iain Glen made his directorial debut this week, helming a production of Ibsen’s 1881 classic Ghosts, in a new version by Frank McGuinness, in which he also stars with Lesley Sharp. The production opened on Tuesday 23 February 2010 (previews from 8 February) at the West End’s Duchess Theatre where it continues until 15 May (See News, 4 Sep 2009).

Set in the Norwegian fjordland, the drama takes place in Mrs Alving’s country house, where she is preparing for the opening of an orphanage, a memorial to her late husband. Mrs Alving’s son Oswald, an artist, returns home for the celebrations. A story of love, betrayal and hypocrisy gradually unfolds as ghosts from the past come back to haunt the family.

Sharp plays Mrs Alving opposite Glen’s Pastor Manders in a cast that also features Harry Treadaway as Oswald, Malcolm Storry and Jessica Raine. The production is designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis.

First night critics were divided over Glen’s directing success with the production. While admirers deemed it “shockingly good”, “terrifically compelling” and even the best rendering of Ibsen’s classic they’d ever seen, detractors felt that the combination of “over-explicit” dialogue, “unfocussed” performances and “patchy” direction reduced the play to a “depressing” and “coarse melodrama”. There was similar disagreement over whether Glen the actor turns in a “fine” and “witheringly satiric” performance as Pastor Manders, or he’s “overstretched” by the extra duty.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “Ibsen’s Ghosts is no longer shocking, just very depressing, which is what I most take from Frank McGuinness’ new version’ ... directed by Iain Glen ... Glen also plays the sneaky Pastor Manders which in this case is one job too many. His accent is curiously wayward ... and the production, overall, is patchy ... The performances are unfocussed, Sharp’s floating elbows and clear-eyed beauty giving way to strain and anxiety and, finally, a sort of gibbering intensity as Treadaway’s Oswald – who is shaking like a dervish from the start of the third act, and blackened after the fire like a chimney sweep – sinks into his syphilitic, epileptic coma ... Nothing seems embedded as this cast of fine actors skim nervously around the edges ... The play just stops two hours after it started (one interval) without dragging you through the mire or leaving you drained, as it should.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “The shadow of oppressive fundamentalism also falls powerfully over (the) production ... Not that director Glen lets actor Glen embody only the scary televangelist ... There are delicate touches here too: a complacency and conceit reflected in his looming, preening body-language, a sexual susceptibility suggested by his comical interest in the servant Regina’s young flesh, a hint of vulnerability beneath the scary certainty. This is a fine performance, subtle yet charismatic, one that simultaneously shows the preacher’s power and his weakness. And there’s strong support: from Malcolm Storry as the sleazy hypocrite who dupes Manders; from Sharp as a Mrs Alving rapturously besotted with her boy and quiet yet firm in her defence of his freethinking; and from Treadaway as an Oswald whose mind as well as his clothes might have been dragged through the jungle. I’ve seen some good Ghosts in my time, but none better than this.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) – "To me the most shocking thing about this revival, directed by Iain Glen, who also plays Pastor Manders, is the way it treats this grimly ironic play as if it were a coarse melodrama. Frank McGuinness' new version doesn't help ... Ibsen's ‘double-density dialogue’, in which characters say one thing and mean another, is replaced by endless reiteration of a single metaphor ... ‘filth’. The over-explicitness of the dialogue extends to much of the acting. Glen himself has good moments as Manders ... Similarly, Lesley Sharp's Mrs Alving has nice touches ... But she hardly suggests a woman burdened by a past in which she has sacrificed love to duty ... Even Harry Treadaway, who has the right gaunt look for Oswald, is driven to shouting at the top of his lungs in a way that seems incompatible with his wasting physical condition. The only restrained performances come from Jessica Raine ... and from Malcolm Storry ... (The) production (is) for the most part is characterised by a strident obviousness.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “When Henrik Ibsen wrote Ghosts in 1881, it seemed a startling indictment of the moral comforts of 19th-century conformism. So much so that it was hard to get it put on ... Now the fuss is difficult to comprehend, notwithstanding Ibsen’s use of syphilis as a metaphor for social decay, and in Iain Glen’s directorial debut, the layered symbolism and morbid comedy of the Norwegian’s writing feel remote ... Ibsen’s concerns are disease, deception, the different motives for loyalty and the past’s toxic bequests but Frank McGuinness’ translation lacks density. Lesley Sharp impresses as Mrs Alving - first playful then weary ... Playing Manders, Glen seems overstretched ... He prowls and preens without achieving real gravitas. In the smaller roles there is exquisitely uncomfortable work from Harry Treadaway, as Oswald, and Jessica Raine, while Stephen Brimson Lewis’ pillared marble design is polished. Yet the production is insufficiently dynamic, and it doesn’t live up to the title’s promise of haunting theatre. In the end it’s worthy, but not incendiary.”
  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – “Further proof that English theatre is going through a wonderfully positive patch is furnished now with this terrifically compelling and often disarmingly comic account of Ibsen's Ghosts. Not only is actor Iain Glen making a most distinguished debut as a director, but he is turning in a witheringly satiric performance as Pastor Manders ... My only niggle (and it was gradually eroded as the production proceeded) is Glen's accent that at first seems to waver between a poor man's Ian Paisley and Gardeners' Question Time. Apart from that, his performance and that of Malcolm Storry, as Engstrand, the dodgy carpenter, are masterly demonstrations ... The bird-like but battle-ready Lesley Sharp breaks your heart as Mrs Alving ... Frank McGuinness' new version derives a lot of energy from pointed, but never over-done alliteration ... Harry Treadaway gives a neurologically naked portrayal that is as audacious as it auspicious ... Shockingly good.”
  • ** DON’T MISS our Whatsonstage.com Outing to GHOSTS on 9 March 2010 – inc FREE programme, FREE drink & EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A, all for £29.50!! - click here to book now! **


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