Latest Review – Ghosts [HOME, Manchester]


HOME, Manchester

Until Saturday 3rd December, 2016

Though met with great controversy and negative criticism during its initial stagings, Henrik Ibsen’s biting critique of 19th-century morality – first published back in 1881 – is now widely considered to be one of the finest works of European drama. Director Polly Findlay’s bold and visceral  new staging pulses with a palpable intensity and a foreboding atmosphere that gently creeps up on the audience and holds them firmly in its grasp through to the thought-provoking and emotionally wrought conclusion.

It is worth noting that this is a fresh, provocative and heavily metaphoric new version of the play by David Watson – adapted from a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund – and set in a time and place that feels vaguely familiar to our own but fractured and distorted enough to distance it from one we might distinctly recognise (with not a mobile phone or gadget in sight!). Though the play’s slang-heavy opening scene does unfortunately feel rather forced and contrived in comparison to the proceeding action, the vast majority of the play thankfully feels much more in keeping with the tone we might expect, and there are enough echoes (or should that be ghosts) of Ibsen’s source material to render it a powerful and dynamic new interpretation of one of the great works in the dramatic canon.

Reprising a role she first played nearly 10-years ago in a claustrophobic and very different production at London’s Gate Theatre back in 2007, Niamh Cusack is superb as the play’s vulnerable and conflicted linchpin Helen Alving, a middle-aged widow, haunted by the sins of her late husband, Captain Alving, and now struggling to move on and free herself from the ghosts of the past. Despite his adulterous nature, she has spent years pretending, nervously creating the illusion of a happy marriage to a kindly and successful man. When her artist son Osvald returns home from working abroad with a shocking revelation of his own, the loving and devoted mother must reveal the true character of the man she has spent years concealing and protecting in order to set them both free. A happy reunion it most certainly is not.

Though initially appearing to be an everyday, jumbled family home – with Cusack’s Helen Alving seen sitting alone, peeling potatoes and drinking coffee as the audience enters – Johannes Schütz’ expansive, grey, angular set design – proudly jutting out into the first few rows of the stalls and piled-high with clutter – soon becomes a central character in its own right, confining the characters and perfectly mirroring the chaos and confusion of Mrs Alving’s own life and mindset; one hiding a lifetime of repressed secrets and lies.

The taboo topics of religion, venereal disease, incest and euthanasia that proved so shocking and groundbreaking back in the 1880s have of course been significantly diluted over the years so it now proves very challenging to treat them in a manner that still packs a punch with a contemporary audience. Watson generally does this very well, substituting Osvald’s diagnosis for something more relevant and ambiguous and giving the dialogue more rhythm and fluidity, however there are a few select sequences that do begin to verge ever so slightly into soap opera territory. The clear social divide between the characters is however better realised, with the respectable, RP trio of Helen, Osvald and Pastor Manders effectively contrasting the unrefined, Northern tones of the Alving’s maid, Regine and her slovenly, carpenter father, Jacob Engstrand.

It is of course Cusack’s agitated, nerve-wracked performance that drives the piece, however there are no small parts here, and Jamie Ballard and Ken Nwosu offer excellent support as Pastor Manders and Osvald, rounding off the central trio, with William Travis and Norah Lopez Holden nicely completing the quintet as the humorous and equally enigmatic Engstrands.

Polly Findlay brilliantly plays on the play’s themes of distortion and perspective, utilising the oddly angled sets’ numerous shadowy doorways and alcoves as a means of concealing the unavoidable (and inescapable) spirits of the past that have haunted Helen for so long. In doing so Findlay conjures up a surreal and twisted version of events, fully embracing the tension and claustrophobia of the melodramatic narrative, adding further depth and complexity to the piece and feelingly wholly unsettling and strangely natural.

It is to be hoped that there is life for this production after it completes its performances at HOME as a mere two-week run for something this strong feels far too brief.

Running Time: 1 hour and 55-minutes (approx.) (no interval)

Final Performance at HOME, Manchester: Saturday 3rd December, 2016.

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

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