"An open drain", "noisome corruption" and "nauseous offal" were among the verdicts on Ibsen's Ghosts on its British and American premières barely a century ago. It can be a little unsettling to find such a play getting so many laughs, and being apparently quite comfortable with such responses; themes of moral intolerance, blackmail, hypocrisy, incest and hereditary syphilis are not usually associated with comedy, at least not this side of Joe Orton, with whom I'll wager Ibsen has seldom been compared.
And yet, on many levels, David Hunt's production works. Mike Poulton, for his adaptation, has excised a few lines which seemed to him to be too unsubtle for a modern audience, and Hunt takes a similar stance. The mere mention, in delicate circumlocutions, of this "disease" is no longer enough to horrify, and the scandalised bourgeois sensibility of Sean Baker's Pastor Manders – originally the embodiment of the morality of large sections of the audience – is now openly ridiculed as the sanctimonious priggishness it has always truly been. It is, though, difficult to restrain the effects of such a tone once it has been adopted, which means that the mendacious, self-serving and generally loathsome Engstrand – who first burns down the not yet opened orphanage, then extorts money from the Pastor and Mrs Alving to fund his establishment of a brothel – appears as little more than an endearing, club-footed scamp.
As Mrs Alving, Nichola McAuliffe steers a sensitive course through these reefs. It is plain that this production could not accommodate a fearless truth-speaker on a crusade for moral honesty, so when she begins to reveal the reality behind life with her outwardly spotless late husband, McAuliffe seems both reluctant and almost puzzled by the circumstances which should force her hand thus, but her diffident manner conceals a resolve that matters should once and for all be straightened as they have to be. Her final duologue with son Osvald (Guy Lankester) attains a powerful mood of exhausted realism which is, in the end, enough to banish the relatively easy laughter of the preceding two hours and more. Michael Vale's design also attempts literally to dampen down the audience's mood, with a backdrop of almost continual rainfall and even the noise of a downpour piped into the auditorium throughout both intervals. The feeling remains, though, that although Hunt's production works a treat for modern viewers on his chosen terms, it succeeds at the expense of doing full justice to the moral dilemmas posed by the play.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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