Henrik Ibsen, translated by Erik Skuggevik and the cast and director
Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Production photo

New artistic director David Thacker has paired his opening production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons with his second of Ghosts by one of Miller's strongest influences, Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, utilising the same in-the-round staging on a glass-topped platform and the same four principal cast members.

Ghosts is the play that Ibsen said he had to write after A Doll's House; Nora in the earlier play walked out on her husband and children to have a life of her own, but Mrs Alving in this play went back to her hard-drinking and womanising husband and covered up his faults to her son and to the world to the extent of building a children's home in his name after his death, which is the point in their story where the play commences.

Pastor Manders, to whom Mrs Alving ran for guidance all those years ago when she left her husband and who reminded her of her duty to the man she married, has arrived to help with the opening of the children's home. Mrs Alving's son Oswald, an artist who has been living in Paris, also returns home for the ceremony – his mother sent him away when he was younger to be away from his father and kept the myth of Alving's greatness alive in her letters to him.

Oswald has an eye for the maid Regina, whose dissolute father Jacob Engstrand wants to leave Mrs Alving's household to help him run a home for sailors, but there are reasons why Mrs Alving can never let Oswald and Regina get together and also why Regina would not want to end up with her wealthy employer's son; the sins of the father are visited on his children.

This 1881 play, pilloried in its day for its immorality in its debate of unmarried couples living 'in sin' and having children as well as incest and venereal disease, works in a very different way in the current world to how it would have in the society from which it arose. Common opinion would have been more aligned with Pastor Manders's rigid morality of duty of a wife to her husband and a child to its parents and of the sanctity of marriage, all of which is stripped apart by subsequent events and revelations. Now, Manders comes across as someone with shockingly old-fashioned and prejudiced views; 'common sense' over time has become the anomaly.

Thacker's production has created a new translation by taking a draft of a translation and getting the cast members to each work on their own dialogue. The action is relocated to Lancashire just by the choice of accents and dialect words and phrases, which works fine as it has to be set somewhere and Norwegian accents would just be silly.

However the production just doesn't work as a whole. Despite the best efforts of the actors who all have great moments but all seem just on the surface of their characters, the play comes across as wordy and dated, everything that the production of All My Sons brilliantly avoided. The actors are constantly walking round and round the table that fills the centre of the stage and rarely stop to actually confront one another. Mrs Alving's cry of "ghosts!" at the end of act one should send a shiver down the spine, but it is stammered out in quite an inconsequential way. After all this fairly emotionless discussion of the issues at the heart of the play, the ending suddenly becomes raucous and melodramatic right at the end, filled with lots of inappropriate wailing and arm waving.

The actors are all very good in their parts up to a point without revealing much of the depths of the characters. George Irving gets across the unshakeable moral standpoint of Pastor Manders and the crumbling of his world view, but he does play it rather much on one note. Margot Leicester is very natural in her delivery of Mrs Alving's dialogue, but sometimes seems a bit scatty and unfocused. Similarly with Oscar Pearce as Oswald, Vanessa Kirby as Regina and Russell Richardson as Jacob: there are hints of something great in the characters but it never goes far enough.

From a director who produced such a powerful production only last month of All My Sons and who directed this very play two decades ago at the Young Vic in a production that is still hailed as a classic, this is all rather strange. Perhaps it was too much to expect from the actors to create their own dialogue as well as rehearsing in such a short time, but whatever the reason, this production gives a taste of what a great production could have come from this play and cast but misses on rather too many levels.

Running until 21 November

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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