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Trafalgar Studio One, London

Ghosts - Duchess Theatre 2010

Our critics rating: 
Wednesday, 24 February, 2010
Review by: 
Peter Brown

Writer Frank McGuinness has almost taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut in reworking this classic play by Henrik Ibsen. I lost count of the number of times the words 'filth' or 'filthy' were used during the dialogue, which gave the impression that the audience were being treated like children having to learn their times table. A pity really because Ibsen's play still has considerable relevance, especially in connection with the current debate on assisted suicide in cases where patients suffer humiliating and terminal decline.

'Ghosts' is set on Mrs Alving's country estate on a fjord in Norway and has a cast of just five characters. Most of the scenes involve only two or three of these characters which provides intimacy as well as intensity as the plot unfolds.

When the play starts, Mrs Alving is just about to open the orphanage which she has had built in memory of her husband, the late Captain Alving. She hopes that the completion of the building will lay to rest the ghosts which haunt her, but they are still very much in evidence when local minister, Pastor Manders – guardian of the public morals and part-time lawyer - turns up to finalise the legal formalities. But contractual matters take second place, as Mrs Alving fills-in the back story about her husband's extra-marital endeavours.

Oswald – Mrs Alving's artist son – has recently returned to his mother's house. He's appropriately pasty and sickly-looking when we meet him and his decline is exacerbated as the play proceeds. However, he becomes infatuated with Mrs Alving's maid Regine who, unbeknown to Oswald or Regine, is the love child of Captain Alving.

The rain pours down during most of the play, but turns out to be inadequate to stop the newly-built orphanage burning to the ground. God's wrath apparently knows no bounds. The downpour, however, seemed apt given the appallingly inclement nature of London's weather over the past few weeks, and also apt for the dour nature of the play.

Pastor Manders (played by Iain Glen who also directed the play) is a tub-thumping parson who thinks he's the guardian of moral principles, yet is easily duped by the conniving carpenter, Engstrand (played by Malcolm Storry). Glen's characterisation seems based on Ian Paisley, the minister who has been involved in the politics of Northern Ireland for what seems like centuries. However, even if the similarities are unintended, the emphasis seems too much especially as the pastor and Mrs Alving have something of a history.

Harry Treadaway produces a highly convincing and emotional performance as Oswald and Lesley Sharp is in great form as Mrs Alving, and there's good support from Jessica Raine as Regine and Malcolm Storry as Engstrand.

McGuiness is a writer for whom I have considerable admiration and regard, but I never felt that this new version enhanced the play to a significant extent, and the repetition was irritating to an unsettling degree. Overall, this revival of Ibsen's play is interesting and intimate, but without ever getting close to being great or hugely innovative.


"I’ve seen some good Ghosts in my time, but none better than this."
Benedict Nightingale for The Times

"The staging is powerful...A chilling, sometimes thrilling account of Ibsen’s merciless depiction of the way the past can poison the present "
The Daily Telegraph

" the most shocking thing about this revival, directed by Iain Glen, who also plays Pastor Manders, is the way it treats this grimly ironic play as if it were a coarse melodrama."
Michael Billington for The Guardian

"Terrifically compelling."
Paul Taylor for The Independent

"The production is insufficiently dynamic...In the end it’s worthy, but not incendiary."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard

"A nuanced, powerful and generally well-calibrated showpiece."
Ben Dowell for The Stage

External links to full reviews from popular press
Times - Telegraph - Independent - Guardian

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