A rip-roaring adaptation of a Scandinavian classic

Almeida Theatre | By Alex Dymoke
Four Stars

THE PUBLICATION of Ibsen’s Ghosts in 1881 was met with total silence. The play was so at odds with the conventional morality that Norwegian critics dared not even raise their voices to condemn it. The British press were not so shy. A column in a national newspaper described it as “an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly; a lazar-house with all its doors and windows open.”

Over a century later, Ghosts is as bracing as ever. Ibsen adaptations can drown in darkness but Richard Eyre’s brilliant new production crackles and hisses before exploding into life. It’s a taut, interval-less 90 minutes, and the unrelenting pace is matched by intense performances from the cast.

The magnificent Lesley Manville subtly alternates between reckless confessionalism and sardonic sadness as sixty-something widow Helene Alving. For decades the social conventions of upper-middle class life forced her to tolerate an abusive husband and bottle up the catastrophic repercussions of his infidelities – now she’s in the mood to lash out.

Will Keen equals Manville as the sanctimonious, reedy voiced Pastor Manders. It was Manders who convinced Helene to return to her husband after she ran away a year into her marriage, and he continues to moralise even as she reveals the full extent of her husband’s behaviour. As the revelations become more explicit he breaks down, puncturing the air with oddly precise gesticulation.

Creating such a vividly unappealing character comes with its own problems. Manders and Helene’s exchanges are supposed to be charged by the forbidden love they shared long ago, but he is so peculiar that no sexual tension is credible.

The pastor’s pious utterances generate a sense of foreboding, which is heightened by Tim Hatley’s spectral set design. The stage seems to brim with secrets, and the sense of an imminent overflowing of truth is difficult to bear.

For all the talk of dead relatives and divine retribution, genes prove the most ruinous inheritance. Drunk, promiscuous and syphilitic, Helene’s son is the very image of his father. Replicated behaviour and disease – there’s nothing supernatural about these ghosts.

Unlike some recent Ibsen adaptations, Richard Eyre’s production isn’t stultified by an exaggerated reverence for the original. The result is a rip-roaring adaptation true to the spirit, if not the word, of the Scandinavian playwright.