Reviewing David Hunt's production of Ibsen's Ghosts in Plymouth last year, I wondered why a play which in its day provoked such outrage at its supposed improprieties should now be so easy to play almost as a comedy. Watching Gregory Hersov's Manchester production (in the authoritative translation of Michael Meyer, who died just before rehearsals for this revival began), I began to formulate a theory.
Unlike much of Ibsen's writing, Ghosts is unremittingly direct and un-metaphorical in its approach to its subject matter: no vine leaves in the hair, no doll's houses, just straightforward syphilis, incest, arson, blackmail and pervasive moral hypocrisy on the part of the priggish Pastor Manders. However, its mode of expression is also thoroughly steeped in irony, both in terms of sardonic turns of phrase and of dramatic irony, where the audience appreciates the truth behind a character's remark when the character him- or herself does not. And this, I think, may be our problem – and it is our problem, not the play's. Over the last twenty years or so, we have become so habituated to irony being used for "postmodern" and/or humorous purposes that we now respond to it, Pavlovian, as if its function could only be to amuse and trivialise.
Thus, however much nuance David Horovitch can work into his delivery as Pastor Manders, too often his lines cannot but come across as comical in their stuffed-shirt pomposity rather than as a self-serving bourgeois affront. When Robert Blythe chooses (rightly, in my view) not to play the devious Engstrand as an obvious villain, but to give full rein to his capacity for extravagantly pulling the wool over the Pastor's eyes, this too is interpreted as comedy rather than any kind of serious indictment. Frances Tomelty portrays protagonist Mrs Alving as a resolute, independently minded Victorian widow, but on occasion, even in the play's bleakest closing moments, her lines also fall prey to the misplaced audience titter. Paul Hilton as son Osvald is semi-detached – precoccupied and otherworldly, concerned with the moral failure he believes has stricken him (rather than syphilis inherited from his late father) – in a way which sets up his character nicely for the closing movement, but does too little along the way to disabuse those determined to view him as an airy fop.
It is frankly frightening that Ibsen's most forthright, and perhaps most powerful, play now shows this worrying tendency to be seen by audiences in a disposable, almost frivolous light. Perhaps what we need as a corrective is a top-rank production that goes all out for the morose moral conflict, in order to remind us that such an element is present at all.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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