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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
The basics of the plot — a parade of tragedies and unwelcome surprises that has few equals in the dramatic literature — are well told in other CurtainUp reviews (linked below) so I will not repeat them. Early productions were described as "positively abominable," "foul and filthy" and (my favorite) "an open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged: a dirty act done publicly."
Director/Adapter Eyre has trimmed the play's length by a third or more, and has also managed to rid it of the stuffiness found in some Ibsen translations; today we react to it without the shocked rage of Victorians, but astonishingly neither the passage of time nor considerable adaptation relieves the play of its force. This can be viewed as Eyre's great achievement.
That accomplishment does not even begin to describe the contribution of Lesley Manville's Helene Alving, the long-suffering wife and mother who nonetheless has fortified her backbone so that she can function, as she must. We watch her enduring an unbearable burden under which we expect her to break, because in her performance we see no capacity to bend, at least not for more than a moment. It's thrilling in the purest sense.
Billy Howle, joining the cast after its honored UK runs, is tremendous as the artist son Oswald, returning from an exile that was arranged by his mother to shield him from the very ghosts from which neither he nor she can escape. He brings a boyish dignity to facing truths — like that one quoted above — that he cannot avoid; he is conflicted but aware of the fatal ghost that haunts him as he suffers.
There are but five characters on the stage. A sixth — Captain Alving, dead for ten years but with a portrait hanging in full view — haunts every scene. The remainder of the cast is also excellent: Will Keen as Pastor Manders, complicit in just about everything that has transpired and bringing plenty of uneasy laughs in his uncomfortble priggishness; Charlene McKenna, as the beautiful and sexy servant about whom Mrs. Alving knows more than she does herself; and Brian McCardie, also deeply connected to goings-on, and also adding a bit of comedy as well as menace.
The design elements here are magnificent, especially the set Tim Hatley provides which features a frosty wall behind the drawing room in which most of the action is set. That wall exposes the further action offstage (at the entry and in the dining room), and adds its own ghostly impression. It also energizes Peter Mumford's remarkable lighting that provides an eerie foreground illuminating the dreary daylight, an evening illuminated by fire and a dawn that brings golden sunlight as the play reaches its almost unwatchable end. Credit as well goes to sound designer John Leonard, who brings the outdoor environment to our seats, and augments it sparingly with perfectly chosen music.
Ghosts treads in subject matter only slightly less difficult to witness today than it surely was over a century ago when it first reached audiences (who received it with less than open arms). Stripped of those mores, we can appreciate not only its revolutionary and scandalous nature, but also its splendor. That seems an odd word choice, perhaps, but this production makes it nothing less. If you miss this production, which runs through early May, you may wait a long while to see anything nearly as good.
LINKS TO OTHER PRODUCTIONS OF Ghosts
Century Center Ibsen Series (1999)
Classic Stage (2002)
Bergman's Production at BAM and in London (2003)
London West End (2010)