Review – Ghosts – Arcola Theatre

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On Friday night, J, W, Mel, Bill and I went to the Arcola Theater to see their production of Ghosts. I was, of course (if you’ve been reading this blog for long), interested because of my deep love of Ibsen’s work (and a previous mostly successful interpretation of Ibsen by the Arcola) – and then there’s also the pre-show carnivores’ banquet at the nearby 19 Numara Bos Cirrik, always a motivation for a trip to Dalston.

Ghosts run for three acts with no interval, meaning roughly a two hour running time. But unlike the overblown Phedre, Ghosts blazed along from start to finish with barely a pause to catch its breath. It was like a 19th century version of August, Osage County – incest, drug use, suicide, and deep dark family dysfunctions – but set in a Victorian society ruled by Biblical morality. As the show tumbled from one horrific revelation to another, it felt like being in a car during the last seconds before a crash – everything was hyper-real and felt completely unavoidable.

Yet somehow it never seemed too over the top, like Osage ultimately was. We started with a woman who was excited to have her son visiting after a long absence, we’re told about the orphanage she’s opening in honor of her husband, we meet the maid who’s in love with the son. One by one, the things we thought we knew unravel, each new tragic element reframing to the whole, as we find out what the actual truth iss underneath the inaccurate pretty picture we started with. Finally it comes back to the only original truth, that Mrs. Alving loves her son, and what that now means for both of them and their lives.

Of the characters, my favorite was Pastor Manders, whose lines Paul Hickey somehow managed to say with a straight face. This closed-minded preacher starts the play by lecturing Mrs Alving (Suzanne Burden) about how wrong it is to read the corrupt literature her son (Osvald, played by Harry Lloyd) has brought home – then admits he hasn’t read it himself as he prefers to criticize based on second hand knowledge! Over the course of the evening we see him tempted and twisted and finally served his come-uppance (as I saw it) – as tasty a theatrical treat as one could ever hope to bite into.

This play really hinges on Mrs Alving’s performance, given that she is on stage for about 90% of the show, and Ms. Burden generally did a good job of creating a woman who’d spent most of her life living a lie and was ready to move into a new world of openness and freedom from social shackles. However, at the end when she was cracking under the stress of her son’s illness, she went rather more histrionic than I was willing to swallow. That said, who knows what the proper response should have been at the end of the play … but it was only about 5 minutes when I lost connection with the drama, and I’d been caught up for the rest of the show, so it was a minor flaw.

I also very much enjoyed the performance of Natasha Broomfield as Regine and Jim Bywater as her slimy dad Engstrand. Engstrand is such a schemer, a real laugh to watch on stage, and I pretty much forgot he was acting because it all sounded so natural, like he’d just thought it up while he was standing there! Meanwhile Broomfield really seemed to “get” the bizarre social limitations of 19th century society and how it would make both Regine’s dad’s job offer and the situation at the Alvings’ house completely unacceptable for her. She also formed the face of the society the Pastor represented, the conservative Norwegian society, and showed just how much Osvald and his mother were shaking up the social order with their radical ideas. Of course, the idea of a woman choosing to pursue her own happiness over her duty and to think her own thoughts was radical enough – living together “without benefit of matrimony” really was just pushing it too far. No wonder Osvald felt the darkness of Norway sucking the life out of his body … in that day and age, I would have, too.

In short: Ghosts was a really fun evening out and, as an Arcola play, fairly easy on the budget. It’s an interesting script and well worth watching. Our two hours flew by! And it certainly deserved better than the half full house it got on Friday. Check it out while it’s on.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, July 31st. Ghosts continues through August 22nd.)

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One Response to “Review – Ghosts – Arcola Theatre”

  1. Review – Ghosts – Almeida Theater | Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl's London theatre reviews Says:

    […] 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 […]

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