Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen directed by Stephen Unwin at The Rose Theatre Kingston
Guest Review by Natalie York:
Since Ibsen’s dark and unrelenting family tragedy first premiered in 1882 it has inevitably lost some of its power to shock (the Daily Telegraph at the time condemned its “gross, almost putrid indecorum”). The scandalous combination of sex, drugs and euthanasia cannot seem quite as unthinkable a topic for drawing room conversation nowadays, but that does not mean that modern audiences cannot still connect to this dark and twisted masterpiece, after all, everyone loves a bleak Scandi-drama. What we get is a brutal image of Victorian self-scrutiny. Challenging the notion that all classical drama has to be entirely relevant to its audience the Director, Ibsen veteran Stephen Unwin, allows us to wallow, unfettered by modern attitudes, in the 19th century mindset where even the reforming voices, clamouring for change, seem alien and unfocussed in their apparently radical desires. When Kelly Hunter, superb as the brittle and fiery Mrs. Alving, expresses her newfound hopes for social liberation she seems just as confident blessing an incestuous union as an unmarried one and ultimately you get a sense of liberalism in it’s true infancy with no insight into the direction of the future. Both as a narrative and a piece of social commentary this is enough, and in many parts it is gripping.
Patrick Drury as the bastion of rectitude Pastor Manders gives one of the best performances of the night, his sternly patrician air a flimsy disguise for naivety and weakness. In fact he seems the most unreliable when he sticks solidly to his principles and time and time again this is at the cost of those around him. We see him attempt to force the young maid Regina (a willful Kelly Hunter) back into an abusive relationship with her father just as he compelled Mrs. Alving to return to her brutal husband years before, an act of cruelty he boastfully calls his “greatest triumph”. As the wool is slowly pulled from the pastor’s eyes and he begins to comprehend the reality of these so-called happy families his first thought, to the palpable horror of the audience, is of course for the preservation of his own reputation with the pain and suffering of those he has harmed brushed aside with a casual flick of the hand.
It is the clash between Pastor Manders’ destructive brand of conservatism and Mrs. Alving’s radical new views that dominates almost all of Act I. Their conversation, briefly interrupted by the occasional intruder, continues as they debate their wildly differing accounts of the past and hopes for the future. Ultimately Mrs. Alving, beaten down by years of secrecy and submission, yearns for honesty and happiness at any moral cost whilst Pastor Drury, who has cut himself off from most of life’s experiences, demands social conformity, even at the expense of Christian kindness. This is a conversation Ibsen himself was obviously keen to dramatize, a commitment which even begins to dominate the main narrative. The play apparently centres around Mrs. Alving’s attempts to minimize the impact of her dead husband’s abuse on her son but actually concentrates most compellingly, in the first half at least, on the struggle between blind conservatism and equally blind liberalism. It is in Act II when the son’s story suddenly goes from being merely hinted at to becoming the driving force of the play. The conclusion this leads to undeniably leaves the audience in a state of shock but as much at the almost jarringly speedy resolution as the horror it evokes. Arguably more time could have been spent fleshing out the character of Osvald, the self-professed prodigal son whose artistic malaise is later revealed to be more directly connected to his father’s abuses than seems initially likely. I liked Mark Quartley’s brooding and infantile performance but his character can sometimes seem like more of a means to an end, a device to illustrate how the hellish sins of the father will always eventually be visited on the innocent son.
The set recreates Edvard Munch’s design for the 1906 production in Berlin. We see a strangely empty drawing room with only a few pieces of mismatched furniture and almost no decoration save for a large and ugly portrait of the deceased Mr. Alving whose malignant legacy is the “ghost” still haunting the survivors of his cruelty. Whilst this design initially seems intensely claustrophobic lighting designer Paul Pyant never allows us to forget the outside world with the reflection of rain projected across the back wall heightening the sense of entrapment and, in a final coup de theatre, the wall itself melting away to reveal the glorious dawn across the glaciers, as per Ibsen’s seemingly implausible final stage direction.
Getting to the Rose Theatre in Kingston does generally take a bit more effort than your average night out in London. It is not the easiest venue to get to but productions are normally more than worth the effort. I can certainly say the same about Ghosts which more than makes up for what it lacks in narrative clarity in powerful performances and a gripping central debate. A very strong production of an enigmatic and unsettling play.
Cast: Pip Donaghy (Engstrand) Patrick Drury (Pastor Manders) Florence Hall (Regina) Kelly Hunter (Mrs Alving) Mark Quartley (Oswald)