Henrik Ibsen, in a version by David Watson
While I seem to have seen plenty of Doll's Houses over the last few years, Ibsen's slightly later play doesn't seem to come up quite as often. However the two plays are directly related; Ibsen said after writing the play about the woman who left her husband, he had to write about a woman who stayed and the consequences of that decision.
The woman is Helen Alving, widow to Captain Alving, a pillar of society whose philandering ways she has kept secret for years, even from their son Osvald and her best friend and confidante Pastor Manders. Like A Doll's House, everything that happens was already set in motion in the distant past; what we witness are the revelations and the consequences.
Director Polly Findlay has brought the play into modern day, although the decor in Johannes Schütz's design seems to suggest it has advanced no more than a hundred years from the 1880s to the 1980s. The modern, earthy language of David Watson's new version of the play adds to the updating, which sometimes works fine and sometimes seems stilted in construction and gratuitously loaded with slang phrases.
Even 35 years ago, Manders's arguments about the role of a wife being to stick with her husband no matter what seemed quaintly old-fashioned ("who is a wife to sit in judgement of her husband? Your duty was to bear your cross, Helen") but that isn't the only issue with updating the play. As the plot hinges on Osvald's inheritance of syphilis from his dissolute father, it's hard not to wonder what all the fuss is about since the discovery of penicillin. And how they expect to get a mortgage on a property they've refused to insure against fire...
However, these little inconsistencies aside, there is much that is great about this production. The large, untidy middle class house that expands right into the auditorium largely has the authenticity of a TV set. While the extended duologue between Helen and Manders that forms the heart of the play has a few longueurs, the opening sets the scene well and the ending ramps up the tension to a chilling ending.
The most notable moments come from Niamh Cusack's riveting performance as Helen Alving. When Helen and Manders hear Osvald and the "maid" Regine together in the next room and Helen utters the English title of the play, it sends a chill down the spine, as it should. The closing moments of the play are almost unplayable for the actress playing Helen, but Cusack nails it perfectly to leave the audience with a heartbreaking final curtain.
Opposite Cusack, Jamie Ballard is very good as the emotionally torn Manders, morally righteous but quite naïve in many ways. Norah Lopez Holden, who only graduated from RADA earlier this year, gives an impressively detailed performance as young Regine. Ken Nwosu's Osvald is a touch overplayed in the jollity early on but gets the serious scenes with his mother just right. William Travis as Regine's morally dubious father Engstrand plays a lot for laughs, which sometimes works well and sometimes comes across as a bit too deliberate.
Even updated, Ghosts is never going to have the same impact as when the Daily Telegraph described it as "an open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly" (the Daily Mail perhaps...). However, despite reservations, a tightly-directed production with a terrific central performance that builds to an intense climax make this worth seeing.