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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Ghosts
Comedy Theatre Spring-Summer 2001

This new production of Ibsen's classic is as good an introduction as anyone new to the play could hope for, though it may have less to offer those who have seen it before.

In darkest Norway, rich Mrs Alving is celebrating two things, the founding of an orphanage in honour of her dead husband, and the homecoming of her adult son. But the husband's reputation is a sham, disguising a life of debauchery, and the son is in the last stages of an inherited syphilis. There are also a thwarted romance and an illegitimate child to come to light; and it is these secrets and lies, along with the social forces that kept them hidden, that are the ghosts haunting the play.

In the course of a single afternoon, all the secrets come out and must be dealt with, and in the process Ibsen demonstrates his two major insights. One is that repressive social forces, such as the guilt-driven Lutheranism and middle-class proprieties of 19th-century Norway, can warp and pervert the healthiest of spirits. The other is that uncovering reality is not a simple process, and lies may be replaced by one or more levels of misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the facts on the way to the truth. He was more interested in the first, while modern audiences may find the second more dramatically fascinating.

It is Mrs Alving who must fight all her socially-programmed instincts to keep skeletons in the closet and then, once she has found the courage to tell the truth as she knows it, to face the discovery that her version is as wrong as the lie. Francesca Annis is perhaps too calm and in control through most of this process for us to fully appreciate the cost to her character of this self-discovery, though she does let all the stops out, and is appropriately heart-breaking, in the horrifying final scene.

As the village pastor, whose iron morality is more than a little tinged with concern for his public image, Anthony Andrews too often slips into comic caricature. He is, however, the first actor I've seen in the role to allow brief glimpses of a deeply repressed sexuality, and thus to give some sense of the price he has paid for his respectability. As the son, Martin Hutson is dressed and coifed like Oscar Wilde, and gets by with a too-conventionally-wimpy characterization (Only Simon Russell Beale, at the RSC eight years ago, had the courage to make the son's self-pity irritating), though he too comes into his own in the final scene.

Sarah Tansey plays the maid with too hard an edge, showing none of the joy of life the play attributes to her, while Robin Soans nicely underplays the weasely and manipulative workman.

The new adaptation by Richard Harris condenses the action, and spells out some plot points more explicitly than the original. Paul Farnsworth's set, dominated by a slanting wall of glass, makes the Alving home look like an artist's garret and creates distracting distorted reflections that steal your eye away from the actors.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Ghosts - Comedy 2001