Ghosts, or Those Who Return

Henrik Ibsen, in a version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Arcola Theatre

Publicity image

Following on from the success of An Enemy of the People last year, the Arcola has asked Rebecca Lenkiewicz to adapt another Ibsen classic in a rather different style, the supremely dark Ghosts.

For those who believe that sex arrived in the 1960s at about the same time as the Beatles, it is somewhat chastening to learn that in Norway a century and a quarter ago a playwright could pen a work brimming with illicit passion. To be fair to the Norwegians, there was no way that it could actually be staged with its central premise of the sins of a father being visited on his son in the form of the disease that had to go unnamed, although in the 21st century version, Harry Lloyd's Osvald does tremblingly vocalise it.

In many ways, Rebecca Lenkiewicz' new version of the play is pretty traditional, although she gives the two younger characters snappy, modern idioms that contrast with a set and costumes, courtesy of Alex Eales, suitable to the original period. The set allows audience members to view on two sides and director, Bijan Sheibani works hard to ensure that his actors play to all.

The drama builds like a noose slowly tightening, following an opening scene featuring the excellent Jim Bywater as Engstrand, a drunkard seemingly blessed with a strange nobility. In this version though, there is a hint that he may have a wickedness not usually perceived

In some ways, the central character is a man who died ten years before we visit his country estate. The late Chamberlain Alving was renowned as a good and generous benefactor of the people so that his very proper businesswoman wife played by Suzanne Burden has devoted considerable time and effort to creating an orphanage at his memorial.

She has been aided in this venture by Paul Hickey's Pastor Manders, an upstanding priest who struggles to come to terms with his own personality, let alone those of his flock. As the play develops, it becomes apparent that the Pastor has been cast as the representative of flawed hypocritical religion, in a society that is governed by the repression of those of this ilk.

The serious plotting begins with the arrival of young Osvald, who, after living a dissolute artist's life in Paris, has returned home dissipated and ill. Seemingly, the only thing keeping him going is a passion for Engstrand's nubile young daughter Regine (Natasha Broomfield).

The play builds to an overwrought, tragic ending as the family dirty linen comes out into the open at the same time as a tragic fire, which contains its own element of mystery.

Ibsen is a master of symbolism and in his creation of an orphanage, which represents the totality of the late Alving, hits one of the many highs in his works.

On this occasion, while the Pastor carries too much of an aura of innocence and the unhappy Mrs Alving struggles to show sufficient humanity until the final scene, it is the two youngsters who have the best of the evening.

Harry Lloyd makes Osvald's plight seemed truly tragic, while Natasha Broomfield gets exactly the right balance as a girl who has ideas way above her station but, as it transpires, is marked by a destiny that she cannot escape.

While Ghosts has a really claustrophobic quality that accumulates in masterly fashion, on opening night the claustrophobia was unhelpfully enhanced by steaming heat in a packed theatre. Even so, this new reading of an old classic is worth the trip to North London but take a large bottle of water in.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

Are you sure?