HENRIK Ibsen’s play Ghosts was greeted with fury and disgust when it was first published in 1881, and it was many years before it found favour with the theatre-going public, although it is now regarded as a classic of European theatre.
In this new translation by Steven Unwin, who also directs the English Touring Theatre production on stage at Salisbury until 19th October, Simon Higlett has based his designs on those made by Ibsen’s fellow Norwegian Edvard Munch for a 1906 production in Berlin, and never has the other side of the “northern lights” been so powerfully evoked.
Helen Alving is awaiting the dedication of an orphanage in her late husband’s name. Her artist son is back from Paris, and the pastor arrives to talk about the finances of the project.
It is raining and dark outside and no flicker of sunlight makes its way into the room – a new facet of Scandi-noir.
But Ghosts, the play that caused Nietzsche to declare “God is dead”, is a drama that explores the blind hypocrisy of men and the ability of women to take on guilt and responsibility for things that they could not possibly have influenced.
Helen tells Pastor Manders the truth of her marriage, but the blinkered man parrots advice about women’s duty to their husbands and glosses over what she is saying.
Osvald can’t paint any more. His brain is fried and his energy sapped and he doesn’t understand why … some eminent French doctor has told him that the sins of the fathers are visited on their children, but his father was an honourable, if sadistic, man, beloved by his mother and the wider community, wasn’t he?
He knows he is facing death, and he needs his mother to face it with him.
This production brings out the humour that it can, from the clever performance of Pip Donaghy as the scheming Engstrand and his damaged daughter Regina, but there are no laughs around the tortured Helen Alving, discovering new outlets for her guilt with every new facet of her son’s story and every criticism from the pastor. She is played with shocking intensity by Kelly Hunter.
Patrick Drury has one of the most unsympathetic roles in all Ibsen as Manders, and Mark Quartley captures the sapped hope of Osvald, with Florence Hall as another perky maid after her star turn in the National Theatre’s Children of the Sun this summer.
It’s a superb performance of a lastingly chilling play.