When: 19th March 2014 / Where: Trafalgar Studios
I went to see Ghosts at the Trafalgar Studios in the last week of it’s run, following a sold out production at the Almeida Theatre. (I’m sorry I keep picking things that are closing, guys!)
The basic plot was as follows: It is the day before Helene Alving unveils an orphanage built in the memory of her long deceased husband, Captain Alving. The Pastor has come to discuss the opening ceremony with her and her only son, Oswald, has recently returned home from travelling abroad. They, along with maidservant Regina and her father, will discover some appalling and life-changing truths from Helene, as well as revealing a few of their own. By the next morning, almost no-one will be the same and Helene’s life is changed forever.
The summary above sounds dramatic, but, yikes, was Ghosts dramatic. I almost don’t know where to start.
This was my first Ibsen and I saw a lot of similarities between this play and Chekhov’s. I’m a big fan of Chekhov and I really enjoyed Ghosts for many of the same reasons. Helene was struggling against public perceptions of herself and of what was ‘right’ in her society. Despite the widely held high regard for her husband, he was a drunk, a chronic womaniser, lazy and unkind. The conflicting ideas about whether her staying with was heroic, martyrdom or pure survival drive much of the beginning of the play. The consequences of the decisions we make – the ghosts of our past – and the troubling way they have of coming back to haunt us. Helene may be free of her husband, but she cannot escape his – or her own – choices and the affect they will have on her son. The maddening rot of the ‘safe provincial life’ explored here is a theme shared with Chekhov.
When you go to see a play that runs straight through with no interval, you’re usually in for an emotional whopper. Ghosts was no different. The tension and emotional distress amps up gradually throughout the performance, secrets unfurling slowly, characters becoming more and more desperate. The tight timeline of the play (less than 24 hours) adds to this, giving you the sense that once Helene had started unraveling the tightly woven fabric of her life, it’s total undoing was unstoppable. Such was the escalation of events (and the performances) that I left the theatre feeling as shocked as if I’d just been slapped across the face. Kid you not: I felt lightheaded and wobbly-legged as I walked towards the tube. The lack of interval meant that we hurtled towards a hell of a conclusion. It felt like I was the only one crying, but there must of been others in the theatre as overwhelmed as me.
Unquestionably, much of this visceral reaction was down to Lesley Manville’s phenomenal, transcendent performance as Helene Alving. I have always appreciated Manville as an actress; she does consistently admirable work on stage and screen, without ever getting the widespread notice she undoubtedly deserves. Her performance here was extraordinary. It built so subtly; Helene’s bright optimism growing dimmer and dimmer as her façade was chipped away at, but somehow retaining her strength and dignity, until it is wrenched away from her at the close of the play. Such is the intensity of Helene’s emotional collapse in those final scenes with Oswald, that Manville must have a core of steel to have done it night after night for the last six months.
The other actors also did very fine work here. Jack Lowden, playing Helene’s son Oswald gave a very moving, engaging performance. Adam Kotz as the Pastor was marvellously uptight and rigid, his hypocrisy shining through all his proclamations. Maidservant Regina and her father Jacob both gave charming performances, providing a contrasting portrayal of ‘doing what’s right’ and moralistic behaviour. Charlene McKenna in particular imbued Regina with a fierce energy that leapt off the stage. This was a tight, impressive cast giving it their all, despite it being near the end of the run.
I loved Ghosts, despite it being a difficult watch. I will definitely try and see more of Ibsen’s work in the future and can only hope I continue to see acting of that calibre.