On a bleak, Norwegian night a young artist, Osvald Alving (Mark Quartley,) returns, broken, to his mother from Europe. He is diseased in both body and soul. He has lost the joy he felt to be alive, a joy which informed his work and his ideals. He will not find it again here; in the broken house he comes back to, while cold, spectral light stretches through the windows, the face of his debauched father who brought about Osvald’s inherited fate looms eternally over the action.
This is but one of the ‘ghosts’ which silently torment Ibsen’s characters, ever-present reminders of past lives gone wrong and of unasked for duties and responsibilities which prey on individuality and cause the good to suffer.
“What right do we have to happiness?” asks Pastor Manders (Patrick Drury,) rather we should embrace the “yoke of duty and obedience.” Those who rebel, whether for good or ill, are destined to be cursed along with their children and wives. Mrs Alving (Kelly Hunter) plans to open an orphanage in memory of her late husband to dispel the unsavoury rumours about herself and him once and for all, but not before the ghosts of her past can appear again to torment her.
With a diversely talented and highly-involving cast, a self-confessed devotion to and great amount of experience with Ibsen, a new translation by himself and a set created from Edvard Munch’s very own designs for a 1906 performance of Ghosts Stephen Unwin has created a powerfully realised interpretation of this behemoth of tragedy.
At the centre of the action on stage is Mrs Alving. Hers is the life originally torn asunder by the conflict between her duty and her own happiness, and her past actions the impetus for so much of the tragedy which befalls her family. Kelly Hunter creates a powerful Mrs Alving confident in her own opinion and ability who gradually unravels until she seems driven almost to madness, dancing between joy at the final appearance of the sun and terror at the terrible request asked of her by her only son.
While Osvald displays, at times, a cruel inability to return his mother’s love, Mrs Alving treats him with complete devotion, determined to preserve him for his innocence and guilt-ridden for whatever hand she might have had in his fate. Mark Quartley has a definite swagger as Osvald which sits well with his nihilistic and rebellious attitude.
Patrick Drury is fantastic as the self-involved Pastor Manders who openly admits and even prides himself upon his own repression of who he is while chastising others for allowing their own individuality to flourish. Drury is patronising when judging others, carrying an air of smug superiority as he forgives the fallen which matches well his position as a strict man of the cloth. His discomfort when confronted with his own temptations and his fear for his reputation while all else falls apart around him leaves a bitter taste in the mouth as we watch him distance himself from old friends in pursuit of his own ideals.
Pip Donaghy brings a strange and sad humour to the opportunistic Engstrand through his delivery and physical presence on the stage as he begs and bows to his superiors, all the while designing new ways to live off the ignorance and suffering of others, highlighting the tendency for men to overlook their significant doubts about other men while damning the small sins of ‘fallen’ women. Only Engstrand’s daughter, Regina (Florence Hall,) can see clearly through his lies. Both characters are played with Scottish accents, drawing a line between both the different social classes and also those destined to live and die by the curse of the ghosts and those who still have the means to escape it, and eventually do.
Although a new translation, there was little that was ‘new’ about the performance which seemed particularly significant. The strange humour could, at times, break the spell of social realism presented to us which is such a major part of Ibsen’s work.
The set too, while in furniture and layout largely the same as Munch’s designs, did little to recreate the sordid browns, yellows and greens of the originals, instead settling on a cold grey which largely failed to catch the eye, save for the powerful figure of Mr Alving which hovered above the fireplace.
Ibsen always feels fresh in his subject matter, his honesty about human nature here paints a very real picture of a family in collapse right in front of us and reminds us of a conflict which still exists between who we are and who society wants us to be. Despite an exemplary cast and a definite and careful eye for detail, there was little to make Simon Unwin’s interpretation rise above the many other great productions of this most tragic and powerful of works.