The Theatreguide.London Review
Almeida Theatre Autumn 2013; Trafalgar Studios Winter 2013-2014
(For the Trafalgar Studios run Adam Kotz replaced Will Keen as Pastor Manders.)
Richard Eyre has adapted and directed Ibsen's classic so that all its strengths are displayed in a trim and fast-moving ninety minutes, while some insightful shifts in focus illuminate the play in ways that will make it fresh even for those who have seen it before.
To oversimplify, the main character Mrs. Alving spends the first half of the play explaining that she has lived a lie, covering up the fact that her seemingly respectable late husband was drunk and debauched, and then in the second half comes to realise that she contributed to his decline, her Scandinavian dourness allowing him no healthy outlet for his vitality.
The trigger for these revelations is the return of her adult son Oswald suffering from inherited syphilis (a bit of dubious science there, but let it pass), and the shocking demand he makes on her.
Previous productions have tended either to get hung up on the shock value of Oswald's story or, more perceptively, seen the core of the play in Mrs. Alving's thinking she knows the truth hidden from the rest of the world and then discovering the deeper truth she hadn't seen.
Richard Eyre recognises that there is a second protagonist in the play, one whose experience is meant to parallel Mrs. Alving's up to a point, in order to let us see exactly where hers departs.
The person to whom she reveals her husband's debauchery is the local clergyman, Pastor Manders, who is almost always played as a bit of a comic foil, a small-minded stuffed shirt unable to see or think past surface appearances.
But director Eyre and actor Will Keen find a serious figure whose attempts to wrap his mind around Mrs. Alving's revelations inspire our sympathy. He is a little man, and there is something a bit ridiculous in his naiveté, but he is trying to understand and do what is right, and we see the pain this causes him.
And when he ultimately gives up and retreats back into familiar and comfortable homilies, we don't dismiss him, but turn our attention to Mrs. Alving, ready to appreciate the strength it will take her not to run away from the revelations awaiting her.
Much credit to Will Keen for finding so much in a character most other actors find so little in.
This does not in any way steal the play away from Lesley Manville's Mrs. Alving, but helps enrich her characterisation. With Manders less of a fool, Mrs. Alving comes across as less smug in the opening scenes, so she doesn't have to win back our sympathy later.
Manville's woman is strong but exhausted from carrying the burden of lies, looking forward to a freedom akin to Manders' retreat into doctrine, and we can appreciate the courage with which she faces having to accept a deeper and less comfortable truth.
In the supporting cast, Brian McCardie makes Engstrand somewhat less of an obvious Uriah Heep villain than that secondary figure often is, much to the play's benefit. The main victims of Richard Eyre's shifts in focus are Jack Lowden as Oswald, who never really develops an identity, and Charlene McKenna as Regina, who needs to show the girl's sharper edges sooner.
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