Jamie Lloyd’s tenure at Trafalgar Transformed goes from strength to strength. The latest offering at the previously named Whitehall Theatre is the not be missed Ghosts, adapted and directed by Sir Richard Eyre. Having missed it during its run at The Almeida, I was thrilled to see its immediate transfer into The West End and am I glad I got to see it. As far as I am concerned, it is a production that cannot be faulted. The acting, direction, adaptation and design all contribute to make a theatrical masterpiece. What with this and the excellent Dolls House recently showing at The Duke of Yorks, Henrik Ibsen is one hot ticket!
It wasn’t always thus. When Ghosts was first performed in an unlicensed ‘club performance’ in London in 1891, it experienced critical disapproval, with the majority agreeing that the official ban as regards public performance was “both wise and warranted”. The consensus of opinion was that Ibsen, “an egotist and a bungler” had written a “deplorably dull play which was revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous; a dirty deed done in public”.
Nowadays we have no such qualms about plays centering around sexually transmitted diseases, attacks on religion, free love and incest, but in the right hands, Ghosts still has the power to disturb. Richard Eyre’s production has such a powerful effect that it does just that and more.
The sublime Lesley Manville gives a magnificent performance as the recently widowed Helene Alving who is thrilled to have her artistic son Oswald (the so, so believable Jack Lowden) back home following his decadent sojourn in Paris. However her joy is fleeting for her past and that of her debauched late husband all too quickly come back to haunt her. Even if one is unfamiliar with Ghosts, the sense that there is something extremely nasty in the wood shed is apparent very early on, such is the tension that exudes from all concerned.
Just as the lack of an interval helps to rack up this tension, so does the magnificent set and lighting. The clever use of a mid-stage murky, glass screen, enables those off stage to be glimpsed. A metaphor for the title of the play?
Not that it is without humour. Adam Kotz as the pious Pastor Manders amusingly highlights a tormented spirit with enough religious zeal to fill Westminster Abbey, who despite believing everything he does is right, actually gets everything impressively wrong. The exquisite Charlene McKenna as the pert maid Regina Engstrand also brings comedic touches to her role as the object of Oswald’s desire, lapsing into French whenever the fancy takes her. Her alleged father, the disreputable builder, Jacob, portrayed by Brian McCardie also comes across as a humorous, if not lovable rogue.
Despite the excellence of these performances, the evening belongs to Lesley Manville. The disintegration of Helene’s life is handled with a heartbreaking delicacy. We were sitting in the middle of the front row and such is the intimacy of all that happens on stage that we were made to feel like voyeurs. This wonderful actress portrays so many emotions: The initial buoyancy of a woman who is finally free from the shackles of a painful marriage. The panic she feels on realizing that Oswald has fallen for Regina not knowing that they share the same father, the hint of sexual tension as she tries and fails to re-ignite the romantic attachment to Pastor Manders. And finally the devastation that her darling boy is dying from syphilis and it is down to her to put him out of his misery. These final few moments are almost too painful to watch. Her tears brought on ours!
What do they say about a good cry being as cathartic as a good laugh? This is a play that shouldn’t be missed, but do take some tissues.