Comedy Theatre, London SW1
Opened 2 April, 2001

**** Ibsen as he should be done

The last two productions I saw of this play got a bizarre amount of laughs; this one is properly sombre, and all the better for it.

A story of blackmail, arson, incest and terminal hereditary syphilis might not seem to hold a lot of humour, but audiences often seem unable to take the pompous, puritanical Pastor Manders seriously as he rails against the Alving family and is deceived by the slimy Engstrand. Anthony Andrews, a world away from his floppy-haired Brideshead persona of old, does a surprisingly good job of keeping things morose (although his gruff voice is audibly laboured). Whenever the audience is tempted to titter, Francesca Annis's magnificent Mrs Alving quickly puts a lid on things by giving the full grim weight to every single one of her words as she strips away his long-held delusions and lays bare the awful reality beneath the genteel middle-class surface.

Martin Hutson as her son Oswald is nicely impassioned through most of the play but cannot quite reach the intensity required in the final movement. But Richard Harris's taut translation and Robin Phillips' excellent production prove that, a century on, the play still works on its own terms, and that unremitting Nordic gloom can still make for a fine evening in the theatre.

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Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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