“In other words, you have no idea what you’re condemning”
London has long thrived on its paranormal industry – spooky tours, famous cemeteries, Jack the Ripper and his ilk and now in its theatres, a double helping of Ghosts, albeit of Ibsen’s variety. Richard Eyre will direct his own version for the Almeida which opens next week but sneaking ahead is Stephen Unwin’s adaptation, also self-directed, for the Rose Theatre, Kingston. A co-production with English Touring Theatre, it marks the twentieth anniversary of that company but perhaps more significantly, it will be Unwin’s final production at the Rose where he has served as Artistic Director for six years.
He has a clear affinity for the Norwegian playwright – Ghosts is the second translation Unwin has written and the seventh of his plays that he has directed and upping the authenticity ante, the look of the show has taken direct inspiration from the stage designs of Edvard Munch, who designed a production in Berlin in 1906 and which have never been seen since. And the result is an extremely classy piece of theatre, one which coils up the intensity of its acting for an incendiary final act but sometimes feels like it is taking an age to get there.
Unwin calls it “one of the greatest plays of world drama” in the programme yet arguably the potency of its power to shock is not one that has lasted. Ibsen uses syphilis as a metaphor for moral hypocrisy and social decay, something that scandalised contemporary society, as venerable widow Mrs Alving tries everything she can to avoid the sins of the father being paid onto her son Osvald as we discover that her late husband was a pox-ridden, philandering scoundrel. But her efforts are in vain as fate firmly aligns itself against the Alvings with the bleakest of consequences.
With venereal disease no longer quite the taboo it once was, the focus flips onto the domestic tragedy of Osvald, and his tangled relationships with his too-close mother and the maid Regine, to whom he has a connection far closer than ever imagined. But Ibsen never really fleshes the character out enough, nor indeed Unwin in his version, to draw us into the tragic whirlpool of which he is the centre and despite his best efforts, Mark Quartley can’t quite overcome this emotional distance to connect with the others, or indeed the audience.
Kelly Hunter makes for a strikingly intense Mrs Alving though, her eyes burning with the injustice of the world even she composes her frame into acceptably demure postures for the highly hypocritical Pastor Manders whose benedictions and advice she craves, even though it is destructively mistaken and rooted in their shared past. Patrick Drury perfectly captures the ostentatious pomposity of the man, visibly withdrawing from any potential contact with a woman, but again there’s little sense that any romantic attachment had ever existed between the pair.
But it does look good, indeed it looks gorgeous at times. The brooding Scandinavian colour palette is perfectly calibrated as the long night turns into cold morning and Unwin has an excellent eye for the placement of his actors – as Osvald and Manders have their first tête-à-tête, Hunter’s Alving perches on a chaise longue, her back to the audience and elongates her spine – it creates a beautiful tableau and one that feels rooted in authenticity. If you agree with Unwin about the pedigree of the play, then it is hard to imagine it done much better; for those less convinced, it remains an interesting piece of theatre though not necessarily essential.