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A CurtainUp London Review
Into London's smallest true West End theatre, The Duchess (unless you count The Arts) comes Irish playwright Frank McGuinness' new version of the Scandinavian classic. Interestingly, experienced starring actor Iain Glen is making his directorial debut and playing the gullible prig, Parson Manders. The wonderfully idiosyncratic Lesley Sharp is the troubled widow Mrs Alving and Malcolm Storry, veteran of many RSC and other productions, plays the exploitative rascal, Engstrand. Rounding off the cast are Harry Treadaway making only his second stage appearance, as Mrs Alving's son Oswald and Jessica Raine, previously seen in Punk Rock and Harper Regan, as the aspirational maid Regine.
I wonder whether Iain Glen has been too ambitious directing himself in a major part for his first venture into directing? The other curiosity is Glen's accent which wavers from Scottish to Northern Irish and back again. Maybe writer McGuinness saw the priest as one of the Calvinist preachers of Northern Ireland? Then there is the excess of Glen's performance as Manders. Ponderous and stuffy, there is no question of any romantic attachment between him and Mrs Alving, as has been implied in some other interpretations. Insensitively he tells Mrs Alving that she gave her child away to strangers when we know that all she was trying to achieve was for the son not to be corrupted by the father or bored by provincial life. This acting interpretation skews the play and it becomes less about Mrs Alving and her tragedy of the ghosts she lives with than about the living pomposity of the ridiculous Manders as he condemns her reading matter as "filth" and Oswald's life in Paris similarly.
There is still pain in the self accusation that Oswald reveals to his mother when he thinks that the reason for his illness might have been his own dissolute lifestyle in Paris. There is a nice performance as Regine from Jessica Raine who is not putting a foot wrong in her early acting career. It is almost as if she is the opportunist Engstrand's "true" child when she ditches the idea of a life with Oswald if it means nursing an invalid.
Lesley Sharp as the mother doesn't show horror until Oswald's degeneration in the final act when she screams and writhes on the floor to excess. She seems very young to me to have lived through the depressing excesses of her husband although her obvious anticipation of Oswald's arrival shows the obsessive nature of her hope for the future through her son. Harry Treadaway cannot be expected to save this play which has become more Victorian melodrama than true tragedy.
I liked the look of Stephen Brimson Lewis' light uncluttered set although the style clashes with Parson Manders' Disraeli type chin beard and black frock coat and the general concept of Victorian clutter at that time. There is a wooden model of the planned orphanage building on show in the Alvings' parlour.
I am afraid that the only atmospheric ghosts of this production are in the uncomfortable ghosts of past and perfectly resonating productions.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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