Preview: Ghosts [HOME, Manchester] | Interview: Niamh Cusack


First published back in 1881, Henrik Ibsen’s biting critique of 19th-century morality is widely considered to be one of the greatest works in European drama, despite great controversy and negative criticism during its initial stagings.

Now presented in a new version by David Watson (from a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund), acclaimed director Polly Findlay’s new production opens at HOME, Manchester on Friday 18 November, starring Niamh Cusack in the central role of Helen Alving.

Helen Alving spent years creating the illusion of a happy marriage to a successful, charming man. Long after his death, she is still trapped by the emotional after-effects of the truth – that he was a serial adulterer and a reckless alcoholic.

Stifled by obligations and expectations, Helen resolves to exorcise the ghosts of the past and free herself from the regrets that haunt her. But when her artist son Oswald returns home, it becomes clear that he has already paid the price for his father’s past.

Ahead of the opening night, we caught up with the leading lady at the official press launch to discuss the new production, the relevance of the play and get an insight into her fascinating character.

Niamh Cusack Interview

Do you feel the play will still resonate with a contemporary audience?

I think this production will definitely highlight all the resonances that are there in the text. Moving it out of the 19th Century setting and taking away the corsets and period designs will make them much clearer.

The play is about a woman who has created a myth about her dead husband, which she thought was the best way of keeping her son unsullied by what had gone on with her husband, and we meet her at the moment where she believes she has really achieved what she set out to. She’s got her son home, she’s putting all the money that was left to her by Captain Alving into a children’s home and she thinks she’s home and dry.

I think the message is that if you don’t look into the difficulties you’ve had in the past then they just keep coming back to bite you, and I think that is something that resonates with everybody. You can’t just move on and pretend the past never happened, and that can be true in our personal lives, politically, historically, so it’s a marvellous metaphor for being a part of the human race.

With Ghosts and the forthcoming revival of Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre, alongside recent revivals of The Master Builder at The Old Vic and An Enemy of the People at Chichester, Ibsen seems to be as popular as ever. Why do you think he still has such a commercial appeal?

I think it’s because he is very much a modern playwright. One of the reasons I think playwright’s have such a passion for Ibsen and like translating him is that he opened up the possibility of really naturalistic writing and acting; he’s talking about real people.

There are so many levels and so much subtext within his plays and that’s so rich for directors and actors to explore, as well as for the audiences watching the plays.

Ghosts in particular is a bit like a mystery; you learn and discover as you go along, and you try to work out why people did what they did, who’s telling the truth and who’s lying to themselves. There is something very human and modern that, despite being written pre-Freud, feels very post-Freudian.

This is a new version of Ghosts adapted by David Watson and directed by Polly Findlay. What have they done to keep it fresh and modern?

What David is brilliant at is giving each of the five characters in the play a clear rhythm of speech. There are two Northern characters in the play, both being played by Northern actors, and I think he’s very keen to make it as fluid and contemporary sounding as possible.

What Polly is setting up is a slightly spooky atmosphere. The audience should feel like they’ve come into something that’s a little bit jet-lagged and ever so slightly distorted; that has a sort of filmic quality to it. I think Polly’s overall conception of it though is quite modern.

Johannes Schütz’ set design again lends itself to a sort of thriller; there’s lots of levels, lots of doors, the lighting will be very important.

Has the play been transported to a particular time and setting? 

No, that’s the interesting thing. It could be anywhere. It’s a world that we almost recognise, so it is modern, but without the technology; there are no mobile phones, no computers. You could be in a dream; you could be in a bit of a nightmare.

I think people will go with that as I think it is quite filmic, and a lot of our reference points nowadays are films.

Now you have played this role before at the Gate, London. How does this production compare?

I really loved doing Ghosts the first time around and to get a second chance has been a real gift. It’s a cracking play and a cracking part you feel incredibly lucky to revisit.

For me the big delight was getting to work with Polly as I was a real admirer of her work. When I realised that how she was thinking of doing it was completely different, it was a little bit scary at the beginning as I thought I would have to let go of some of my ideas and thoughts.

 It has been ten years since I last did it so it does feel a bit of a distant memory, but that was very much a traditional, period piece. I was still trying to find the truth, and I thought it was a wonderful version we did, but we were trying to see whether an audience would engage with a period staging.

What’s great about this production is that at times I feel like I’m doing almost a completely new play. It feels familiar – there are ghosts for me – and I always wanted to play this part as I felt I really understood the woman and I understood her world. In many ways the Ireland I grew up in in the 60s and 70s was quite a repressed society, and a society that was based very much in the church telling you what to do and people seemingly living by the rules, but actually not at all. As we know now there were lots of very dark secrets being hidden.

To me, when I did it the first time I absolutely identified with that and recognised it, so to do it in this new setup has been a really liberating experience, and I feel I have benefited very much from doing the play before.

There has been a lot of criticism and discussion in recent years over roles for women and fewer roles for older performers. What’s your take on the situation?

I think the ratio of parts for women versus parts for men is still very uneven. It’s got better, I think it’s got a lot better; there are some fantastic actresses now taking on more male roles, and I think why not?

I do think it’s exciting that there are so many really good writers for women appearing in theatre, television and film, and it’s not just women writing for women, it’s men writing for women because I think they are realising actually it has been pretty unbalanced and also there are so many great actresses out there. The thing I’m really struck by is how many good actresses there are around, so it just seems crazy for writers not to be writing for them.

As you get older there are fewer parts, but again that has changed quite dramatically in my time.

Is Helen Alving’s age referenced in the play?

Not really. She’s probably in her late forties or early fifties. I was a little bit younger when I played her the first time and now I’m a little bit older, but I think she’s a role that feels quite ageless and timeless. I think there are elements in her that are incredibly childish, irresponsible and impulsive, but she’s a woman who has lived both a hell of a life and a hell of a lie, but managed, somehow.

Have you seen any other productions of Ghosts over the years?

I saw Jane Lapotaire do it and I saw Vanessa Redgrave do it, but at the time, as much as I admired the performances, I don’t think I realised what an immediate play it was. Now feels like a really good time to be doing Ibsen.

I think previously people were a bit reverential; they thought plays like this were classics, whereas now people are realising no, they are contemporary, they are now and they do feel very modern.

We take ownership of his plays and I think that’s what he may have liked, dare I say?

GHOSTS runs at HOME, Manchester from Friday 18 November to Saturday 3 December.

For more information, and to book tickets, please Click Here.

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