Sunday, 16 March 2014

'Ghosts' at the Trafalgar Studios

On Friday we went to see Henrik Ibsen's 'Ghosts'. It was originally produced at the Almeida but transferred to the Trafalgar Studios to keep it going for a few months. It was a good job it did so I could see it.

I'm not the greatest fan of Ibsen and, in a way, this play confirmed my fears. It was another Scandinavian public v private morality tale with a few twists in the tail. Another tale of outwardly good citizens with dark secrets and a life hidden from society. Of hypocrisy, of private danger, of sin and retribution. Of children suffering for the sins of the father.

It's a relatively short play of only 1:40 hours so it packs a lot into a short space of time. Even so, it's nice to see some fully rounded characters in the cast despite the short time they have to establish themselves. The weakest was, I thought, the pastor, who was a bit one dimensional and very stereotypical, even when found out setting light to a newly build orphanage and instantly getting off by lies and deceit. The other characters were, I felt more strongly drawn even those with far fewer lines, or, at least, they came alive to me.

It's one of those plays when I have no difficulty splitting off the play from the performances. There are five characters and all emerged neatly from the page to live and breathe in front of us, the two most compelling were the mother and son in whose house the play takes place, the son returning as a prodigal from the flesh pits of libertine Paris to small town, protestant, Scandinavia on the eve of an orphanage opening in the name of his dead father. The father never appears but is thoroughly painted as a bad 'un, out drinking and whoring until the cows come home, or, in his case, syphilis. The mother kept the public facade going despite reading radical feminist treatises and political pamphlets. When push comes to shove, she has to tell her son that the maid he wants to run away with is his step-sister. At that point she re-invents the past in that she might have been the one to push her husband to drink and debauchery. Who knows?

It's a production of peaks and troughs, of moments of tension growing and growing and then being smoothed out, releasing the tension for a time before it builds again. Up and down we go as one moment of catastrophe is averted to be followed by another. And then it is, in the finale, that sees Lesley Manville throw all caution to the wind and dive head-first into a role that requires her to help her beloved son to die. Can she do it as the orphanage is in embers in the distance? The son she tried to save by sending away as a boy and the sins of the father returning to wreak revenge. It's a magnificent, spell-binding performance.


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