Lesley Manville has slowly but surely worked her way into the nation’s conscience as an actor of distinction. Her appearance at the National Theatre in The Visit was one of the victims of #Lockdown1 earlier this year which was a shame for her many fans. Some compensation came in September when she was able to appear at The Bridge in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads which was a recreation of the TV version from some weeks before (these are all still available online and reviewed here, here and here). Other than that, as far as seeing her on stage is concerned, it’s back to 2013 for her acclaimed appearance in Ibsen’s Ghosts which premiered at the Almeida and then moved into the West End. A filmed version of this is available on a couple of the streaming services and is well worth a viewing.
Manville plays the widowed Mrs Alving who is funding the creation of an orphanage in memory of her dead husband. Her legal affairs are being handled by her spiritual advisor Pastor Manders and the finalisation of the project coincides with the homecoming of her son Oswald, an artist. Although there seem many reasons to celebrate, the ghosts of the past are ever present, and it soon becomes apparent under the positive façade these people are very troubled souls. Various skeletons emerge from the family closet and raise issues which challenge the status quo; among them are matrimonial cruelty and neglect, unfaithfulness, free love, alcoholism, illegitimacy, venereal disease, euthanasia, religious intolerance, feminism and more than a hint of incest. That’s a pretty challenging list even by today’s standards but in the 1880s when the play was first performed it was deemed completely unacceptable. Small wonder that at the time it was first performed the play was regarded as odious and vilified both in Norway and around the globe. The Daily Telegraph reviewer who obviously had an eye for a balanced appraisal (!) regarded it as ” An open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly… Gross, almost putrid indecorum… Literary carrion… Crapulous stuff” – now tell us how you really feel! 140 years later such scruples are no longer so relevant and the play is often hailed as one of the writer’s masterpieces.
Richard Eyre directs this production and has adapted and shortened the text with the intention that the piece be played straight through (perhaps less relevant when it is on video) and this gives the play a forward momentum and inevitability which is entirely in keeping with the sheer number of revelations which emerge as part of the plot line. Eyre can invariably be relied upon for clear concepts and concise direction and he does not disappoint here. He has ensured the success of the play by first class casting and facilitated a central performance of subtlety yet great power from Lesley Manville as Mrs Alving. Manville rightly deserved the many accolades and awards she won for this role as she gives a powerhouse performance of controlled passions which eventually break free and overwhelm her as the enormities of her past come back to haunt her.
Jack Lowden plays Oswald and makes a very good job of quite a difficult part. Though he is the apple of his mother’s eye we have to realise that he has inherited some of the characteristics of his libertine father and as we only hear of the Captain through the recollections of others this is not necessarily an easy task. Of course, his father’s loucheness and fondness for a drink are not the only things he has inherited and Lowden is particularly good in the last scene as he has a fit and the disease gets an irrevocable hold on him. Pastor Manders represents the general view that individual circumstances are outweighed by societal considerations and Adam Kotz perfectly captures the clergyman’s hypocrisy and inability to deal with any situation which does not conform to the expected norms. Charlene McKenna as Regina gives a more spirited performance than the part usually attracts – like her employer she too will suffer from the depredations of the men folk including her father played by Brian McCardie. I wasn’t sure why the two of them had pronounced Scottish accents when nobody else did but this is a minor quibble.
Tim Hatley’s set looks gorgeous with the wall of the dining room being put to particularly clever use. It is translucent, giving the characters who move in there an appropriately ghostly presence particularly when they are re-enacting moments from the past. The design is fully complemented by Peter Mumford’s striking lighting design which uses a painterly chiaroscuro to significant effect, particularly in the closing minutes which still retain the power to shock as an ultimate taboo is broken. I have a feeling that Ibsen would still get a sense of satisfaction from that.
Ghosts is available on the streaming services Digital Theatre – click here and Broadway HD – click here
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