Ghosts

Henrik Ibsen in a new version by Richard Harris
Logos Theatre Company
New Wimbledon Studio
(2006)

Production photo

This Logos Theatre Company revival of Ibsen’s haunted masterpiece is the first UK contribution to Ibsen Year 2006, an international event launched by the Norwegian culture ministry to mark the centenary of the playwright’s death.

Bryan Hands’ production uses Richard Harris’s genuinely fresh and lively version of the play, originally written for the 2001 West End staging starring Francesca Annis, which raised some critical eyebrows at the time.

Harris is better known as a popular comedy and thriller writer. So there were no surprises when his fast-moving text, running a bare two hours, discovered a few more jokes than usual, prompting seasoned critic Sheridan Morley to suggest that the plot was now moving dangerously close to the satirical territory of Cold Comfort Farm.

True that something nasty is forever popping out of the closet, if not the woodshed. But with Ibsen’s frank handling of venereal disease and incest, this was precisely his intention in two brilliantly plotted acts that interweave past and present. And while it remains a bold syphilitic shocker, one that appalled critics and playgoers alike when first seen in 1883, we now recognise its plea for social compassion and spiritual honesty.

In the decades before the play begins, Mrs Alving is trapped in an unhappy marriage with her fun-loving philanderer of a husband. But growing disgust at his gross misbehaviour with the maidservant, who carried his illegitimate child, finally forces her hand.

She flees for refuge to the home of her old sweetheart Pastor Manders, a stern presbyterian with a preference for bachelorhood, who persuades her she must stand by her man.

Chastened by this, she even takes over the Alving family’s business affairs; so successfully that when Captain Alving is eventually laid to rest he is acclaimed as a pillar of the community. Now, years later as the play begins, a community centre built in his name is about to be opened with a grand public ceremony.

But she is soon to discover that the sins of the father have been passed on to her only child Osvald. The boy, who was placed in protective care and later assumed the life of a talented young artist in Paris, is now returning home, his body racked with incurable syphilis; blaming not his father but himself for the follies that have led to this physical collapse.

Worse, he instantly falls in love with the pretty maidservant Regine, unaware that she is his stepsister, while wanly hoping she will the source of the loving care and comfort he will need in his dying moments.

Most recent revivals have provided a field day for directors and designers—Ingmar Bergman among them—leading to ghost effects, spooky lighting, oppressive walls and obtrusive make-up. So it comes as a relief to see the play given a wholly conventional, naturalistic staging, in a style that would have been familiar to Ibsen and his contemporaries.

Beautifully designed by Prav Menon-Johansson, the playing space is a handsomely furnished living room with a pine floor and Scandinavian stove, giving access to a dining room beyond: no mean feat in the New Wimbledon Studio’s usually intractable playing space—even the steps to the theatre bar becoming part of her setting.

At the heart of this production is a splendidly spirited performance from Frances Cuka: not the usual stodgy matron struggling with evasions, but a mature Mrs Alving, still embracing a lively lust for life and a brave readiness to face unpalatable truths.

Pastor Manders, who goes through a harrowing learning process during the course of an event-filled day, is played with extreme unction, cleverly maintained by Roger Sansom.

A handsome, promising portrayal of Osvald is given by recent Webber Douglas graduate Richard Galazka, whose tender scene with his mother is here redolent of both Hamlet and Coward’s drug-battered hero in The Vortex, bringing the play to its quietly tragic conclusion as he descends from sickness into a coma and perhaps premature death.

But there is also an unmissable cameo from Terry Ashe, a beautifully detailed comedy performance as the dubious carpenter Engstrand, first in a strongly focused opening encounter with Samantha Dew as his handsome stepdaughter Regine, then running satirical rings around the susceptible Pastor as he get his wicked way with the unsuspecting prelate.

I feel sure Henrik himself would have loved this plain but telling tribute to his unsurpassable skills as a tragicomic dramatist.

Reviewer: John Thaxter