Duchess Theatre, London WC2
Opened 23 February, 2010

In his directorial début, Iain Glen has cast himself as a sanctimonious prig and butt of humour. As a programme essay notes, Ghosts has become funnier over the years, and most of the laughs are at the expense of Pastor Manders’ moral certainty, childish credulity and rank hypocrisy. Glen gives the Pastor a distressed Morningside accent, as if he has just popped over to the Norwegian island on which the Alvings live from his parish at Edinburgh’s Holy Corner. If at times Ibsen’s play bids in his production to become the pastor’s comedy rather than Mrs Alving’s tragedy, Glen the director has astutely cast Lesley Sharp opposite him, who although scarcely old enough for the role brings a world of bitter experience and disillusionment to virtually every line. As she grapples with incest, arson, blackmail and hereditary syphilis, there is no danger that this Mrs Alving will be eclipsed as the protagonist, not even by the likes of Glen or Malcolm Storry as the plausible liar Engstrand (the arson and blackmail are his). Storry knows he has no need to exaggerate the superficiality of Engstrand’s pieties, but can play them with sincerity and leave them to be stripped bare by our sensibilities as an audience and by their context within the play.
Frank McGuinness’s adaptation is brisk (at barely two hours including an interval) and characteristically sinewy. It is particularly good on Mrs Alving and her son Oswald’s circumlocutions about the late Captain Alving’s vices and the syphilis he has bequeathed to Oswald, and even more so on the symptoms of this in the young man. His sentences begin to fragment almost from the start, and his famous final line as he subsides into dementia, “Mother, give me the sun,” shatters altogether into disconnected single words. Harry Treadaway gives Oswald a slightly shambling posture and a thousand-yard stare; he is not exactly febrile, but clearly heading for disintegration. The two younger actors, Treadaway and especially Jessica Raine as Regine, tend to get a bit shouty, but this cannot disrupt the vistas of grief and disaster which seem naturally to emanate from Sharp’s features as she finds herself foremost amongst those being drawn into a black hole from which no code of morality or principle can escape.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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