Theatre Review: Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts

Will Keen (Pastor Manders), Jack Lowden (Oswald Alving) and Lesley Manville (Helene Alving) in Ghosts - Hugo Glendinning

Will Keen (Pastor Manders), Jack Lowden (Oswald Alving) and Lesley Manville (Helene Alving) in Ghosts – Image:  Hugo Glendinning

Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, currently on at The Almeida, fierce, courageous, unflinching and at times bitterly painful exploration of grief, suffering, the necessity of deceit, and the willingness to sacrifice for loved ones.

Having said all this, if you’re looking for the uplifting, life-affirming moment, the pregnant-with-meaning, didactic glow at the of this great theatrical ‘journey’ be warned: there is none. Your soul will be pulverised. No horrific freakshow, this play is deeply traumatising theatre in which deeply etched tragedy stains the stage. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. This is as bleak as it gets. This is a piece in which Ibsen makes Stieg Larson look like Hans Christian Andersen.

And if you were playing the Scandinavian Writers Review Reading drinking game , you’re probably too pleasantly inebriated to carry on. For all the rest, the premise is as follows:

Director Richard Eyre has consistently relocated Ibsen’s text to a manor house in what feels like near Hebridean isolation somewhere on the Scottish coast. The maid of the house, Regina, ostensibly the daughter of a down-and-out builder from ‘the town’ is in love with the young master of house, Oswald Alving, recently come from Paris where he was honing his painting skills. Meanwhile the widow/mistress of the house , Helene Alving, is meeting with the local priest to discuss the orphanage she is building in honour of her late husband.

All of course, is not as it seems. How could it be? Every one of these charcters harbours a terrible secret that boils up inside them waiting to burst out and rip open the visceral heart of the action, trailing the guts of melancholy and pathos. It would be in no way a spoiler to say that the catalystic hidden truth is that the late Captain Alving was not the upstanding officer and gentleman worthy of honouring posthumously with an orphanage that he appeared to be.

From that destructive lie, we sink deeply and quickly into a dank hell of repressed sexual urges, potential incest, philandering and lechery of all manner, piled on top of arson, debilitating and fatal illness, prostitution, and moral depractice.

Have I left anything out? Let’s take a break from the slings and arrows for a moment because I can’t fault the actual execution of this dark vision. The acting is superb. Will Keen is especially admirable depicting the conflicted and ultimately repugnantly hypocritical Pastor Manders. Jack Lowden is brave and brimming with conviction as young Oswald. The set was richly layered and beautifully evocative of the dark and shadowy manor house with menacing wraiths from the past haunting everyone on stage. An opaque screen serves as a wall between parlour and dining room suggesting the action in other spheres of the narrative is moving forward and careening towards conflict and tragedy.

So it wasn’t poorly done. Quite brilliantly done actually. But I’m just not convinced that there are some plays worth returning to. Sure, Shakespeare had different strands of catastrophe heading towards collision to maximise impact, but did he try to fit as many of those blazing calamities as he could into a short space of time? Jury’s still out, but there comes a point when you start to think that events are implausibly catastrophic and at that feels like a betrayal of the good faith of the audience. Is it a good play? It is an unparalleled exploration of grief and deceit. It leaves you feeling like your sanity lies in tatters somewhere in your head. But there is merit in that. Just don’t expect something as neat and resolved as satisfaction in your theatrical entertainment.


Ghosts runs until Saturday, 23rd November at The Almedia

About Pete Lawler

Pete Lawler I was born in the USA, but I’ve lived, learned, and taught in London for the last 8 years. I reckon that makes me as much of a Londoner as anyone here. There are all kinds of Londoners.


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