Review: Ghosts, Duchess Theatre

“You do not question the received wisdom”

Ghosts, or Ghostsssss as it seems to be called in this production (this was an early preview), marks the directorial debut of Iain Glen, who also stars here alongside Lesley Sharp. Shocking beyond belief when originally performed in the nineteenth century as one of the first plays to mention syphilis (the ghost of the title) and a damning indictment of Victorian morality: today it has lost this scandalous aspect so the focus necessarily becomes more on the devastating effect of keeping damaging secrets and how the sins of the father are revisited on his son.

The play centres around Mrs Alving (Lesley Sharp), a embittered widow whose husband was a notorious philanderer yet Victorian wisdom and the advice of her spiritual advisor Pastor Manders (Iain Glen) dictated that she stay by his side regardless, despite society knowing full well what he was like. The return of her son Osvald (Harry Treadaway) who she sent to Paris to escape the corruption of his father marks the possibility of a new beginning but it seems history is doomed to repeat itself as those ghosts keep on whispering.

I’m not a particular fan of Ibsen, but I do try to keep an open mind and revisit his plays to see if I can be won over. Here, I tried, I really did, but I just could not stay awake during the first 30 minutes or so: the opening scenes are so static and just flat, they really do not pull you in to the intrigue of the action to damning soporific effect. Things do pick up somewhat, but the whole pacing of this production was just too lethargic for me and the addition of an interval in this short play was quite unnecessary in prolonging my experience.

The drawing-room set is nicely dressed with a pale bleached Baltic feel and I loved the ‘curtain’ which is the front wall of the house, the windows of which we can peer through, and credit to the lighting designer whose naturalistic lighting effects are just beautiful. Sharp’s Mrs Alving is also bleached of emotion, buttoned up and scarcely able to shake her icy protective exterior and over-riding desire or duty to control everything, but, and it pains me to say this, there was an occasional touch of over-acting and the way she repeatedly said ghosts provoked an almost uncontrollable desire to giggle, it was too much for me.

Iain Glen’s hypocritical pastor is nicely played, setting the moral tone for people to live by regardless of the human impact of his preaching but Harry McEntire has the unenviable task of trying to make us care for a character whose fate forms the climax of the play yet is curiously underdeveloped by Ibsen, and I wasn’t a fan of his rather shouty performance.

This version plays up the class differences between the servants and the others, it is Frank McGuinness of course, and whereas this did provide an amusing side to Engstrad’s buttering up of the pastor, it just isn’t a Scandinavian thing. We still seemed to be in Norway, so I couldn’t see how the imposition of (Irish?) class values worked unless the play had been fully relocated.

Lesley Sharp really is one of the most interesting actresses to watch, there are times when she simply commands your attention, but these moments were too far and few between to save this particular evening at the theatre for me. Elements of this may yet change before the opening night, but this production confirms to me that Ibsen just isn’t my cup of tea. (And before you judge me, I’m off to see Hedda Gabler next month to try again!)

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes (with an interval)
Programme cost: £3.50

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