'Ghosts' review – Ibsen's play becomes a riveting psychological thriller in this atmospheric venue

Read our four-star review of Ghosts, starring Hattie Morahan, now in performances at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to 28 January.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Ibsen’s 1881 play Ghosts finds renewed vigour within the claustrophobic confines of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, now launching its 10th-anniversary season with its first-ever Ibsen production.

That seems surprising given the natural fit between this candlelit venue and the shadowy realms of a playwright for whom the past is forever haunting the present and where people die only to leave a dubious, often toxic legacy.

And so it is that the director Joe Hill-Gibbins has adapted Ghosts into a 100-minute psychological thriller staged on a luxuriantly carpeted set (the designer is Rosanna Vize) that hosts all manner of carnally suggestive encounters and catastrophic emotional reckonings.

Mrs Alving (Hattie Morahan) is thrilled to welcome back to the fold after a two-year absence in Paris her beloved son Oswald (Stuart Thompson) who, age 23, is ready for the “proper home” that his mother can provide. Let's just say that things don't quite go to plan.

This widow, for her part, wants to lay to rest the forbidding shadow cast by her dissolute husband, an alcoholic scold whose philandering ways are of a piece with a play quick to upend propriety that finds hypocrisy at every turn.

It’s 10 years since Captain Alving died, as his onetime wife, Helene, is cruelly reminded. The bearer of psychic distress is Father Manders (Paul Hilton), a moralist who suggests a Scandinavian MAGAt in his ability to pronounce censoriously on topics whilst behaving in complete contrast to his more high-minded assertions.

Adding to the emotional turbulence are the father and daughter pairing of the conniving carpenter Jacob Engstrand (Greg Hicks, as brilliantly creepy here as he was just recently in Oklahoma!) and his daughter, Regine (Sarah Slimani), the family maid who partakes in her own way of the abiding climate of sin.

Ibsen’s play achieves a brilliant narrative layering whereby all five characters in differing ways have the goods on one another: who knows the truth about what happened when informs the building momentum of a plot that should ideally ensnare the audience in its grip every bit as much as it does the characters.

Hill-Gibbins manages precisely that without lapsing into melodrama – always a risk with this text. Mrs Alving spits out the word “facts” as if trying to comprehend the almighty convergence of incest, arson, and terminal illness that will overtake all attempts to order her life.

Scarcely has the talk shifted to the presence of an orphanage in the community in honour of the deceased captain before that building, too, is ensnared in a moral and physical blight that shows no mercy.

It’s a joy to welcome Morahan back to the stage – and to Ibsen, some 11 years after her career-enhancing performance in A Doll’s House took her from the Young Vic on to the West End and New York.

Shining-faced with excitement at a future that will see her reunited with her son, Morahan’s Helene by play’s end has veered instead toward the abyss, her decline fuelled every step of the way by Hilton’s nattily dressed, brilliantly odious Manders.

Thompson came to attention at the Almeida as Moritz in Spring Awakening, a show whose libidinous landscape isn’t that far removed from the goings-on in Ibsen’s chillier climes. But as the text punningly calls for “the sun” in the final moments of a play about a syphilitic son, Thompson and his colleagues carefully extinguish the onstage candles until they are in every way consumed by darkness.

Ghosts is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse through 28 January. Book Ghosts tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Ghosts (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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