I have to say, I wasn’t planning on going to see the Almeida’s production of Ghosts. I’m an Ibsen completist, but after seeing the Arcola’s 2009 production, I figured this was one I could skip seeing again. But, well, I got an offer to come to a bloggers’ review night, and I thought, why not?
As it turns out, with a different translation, the removal of the interval, and a more committed cast, this was not just a snappy play, but a performance that gave me new insights into the text. This show is known as the “syphilis” play, but it’s about much more than that: about morality, personal evolution, family ties, the impact of lies, and assisted suicide. Over all of this hovers the “ghosts” of the title, the past which Helen Alving (the stellar Lesley Manville) can’t escape … embodied pretty directly as her dead husband and the legacy of his life. She’s got a good position in society, but only as long as she keeps up the pretense of her husband’s reform after years of philandering and debauchery – a pretense which requires her to deny her own skill as a businesswoman. In the end, everything Mr Alving left behind is in ruins, including his son (Oswald, Jack Lowden) and the remainders of his money (to be turned into the funds for what looks to be a house of ill repute).
I found some of this play hard to swallow, still. Pastor Manders (Will keen) is both narrowminded and judgmental, but is both willing to be fooled by Jacob Engstrand (Brian McCardie) and then to quickly give up his pursuit of truth if it means he is to be stained by opprobrium. His gullibility and easy acceptance of false witness if it were to his benefit didn’t seem in keeping with his character. Meanwhile, Helene, while a believable loving mother and progressive thinker, completely falls apart at the end of the play, when her son starts piling on the bad news. This is a woman who made it through at least a decade (maybe more) of a terrible marriage that required her to deal with humiliation on a daily basis … where was her backbone when her son needed it? Manville had her sobbing and hysterical, but I think she probably would have pulled into herself, looked at the facts, and found strength and clearsightedness.
But, you know, it’s hard to blame actors for a playwright’s decision: I’m sure, like Jessica Rabbit, Manders and Helene were “just written that way.” And although I found moments which I think didn’t make sense, as a drama it all rolled on quite quickly to a blazing conclusion, with Oswald staring into the distance, asking for the sun, his mother standing beside him as the light of dawn peeps through the windows. Ooh such symbolism! And the whole thing took little more than ninety minutes. I was overwhelmed enough that I needed to get an ice cream afterwards to fortify myself – a big difference from how I felt walking out of the Arcola many years ago. This play was vibrant and relevant; I’m so glad I went!
(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, October 6th, 2013. It continues through November 23rd.)