They say you never forget the teacher who influenced you the most. I was lucky enough to have two. John Steane and Bruce Ritchie, both of whom taught me English literature through O levels, to A levels, to Oxbridge. Sadly, neither of them is with us anymore, but both were inspirational; Bruce was the man for anything 20th century and his passion for Pinter and Stoppard was out of this world. John was the go-to for anything 19th century and earlier; Shakespeare, Marlowe (he edited the Penguin edition), Restoration Comedy, Sheridan – and Ibsen. Yes, it wasn’t all laughs in his lessons (well, actually, it was.) But it was after reading Ghosts in his class that I went out and bought all Ibsen’s plays in various paperbacks. It was also the first time I came across the notion of theatre censorship, which has continued to fascinate me all my life. And that little lad at school was determined that one day he’d see Ghosts on stage.
Who knew that would take the best part of forty-five years to achieve?! But Lucy Bailey’s new production, adapted by Mike Poulton, in the intimate delights of the Royal Theatre in Northampton is definitely worth waiting for. In brief: the late Captain Alving appeared to be a Pillar of the Community (to use another Ibsen title) but in fact was a philanderer and a scoundrel. His wife Helen briefly left him but was talked into taking him back by their friend Pastor Manders, who convinced her that it was simply The Right Thing to Do. When prodigal son Oswald returns home from his life as an artist in the capitals of Europe, it’s revealed that he is suffering from syphilis that he has inherited from his father, so the truth about Alving’s womanising has to come out. Also awkward – he’s falling in love with Helen’s housekeeper Regina, who, it emerges, is his half-sister. The ghosts of the past come back to haunt the present, and the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. It comes as no surprise that this is not a play with a happy ending; although Ibsen keeps its final resolution deliberately obscure.
When you enter the auditorium, you’re instantly struck by the sound of rain. Torrential rain. It’s been raining for days in Rosenvald. Characters arrive and moan about the rain (even if, occasionally, the actors seem to be bone dry – slightly odd I thought). But, in the words of Elkie Brooks, there is always Sunshine after the Rain, and that’s what the physically and mentally devastated Oswald yearns for – the sun. As the stage slowly begins to fill with light at the end of the play, the sun represents the morphia that Oswald begs his mother to administer, which will finally put his mind and body at rest. For most of us, a new dawn would be cause for optimism. Perhaps it is for Oswald too. It’s a heavy symbolism, but then you don’t go to Ibsen for a drawing-room comedy.
Mike Britton’s gloomy set is suitably dour for this comfortable, respectable yet austere household, with a relatively small acting space out front, and a partly-hidden dining room behind, where maids sit and sew and a drunken Oswald gets rowdy-rowdy with Regina. I’m guessing this was deliberately done to make the back room feel further away, but I found myself strangely irritated by the circuitous route that the actors had to make from the back, going around the table the long way in order to get to the front room – it just seemed unnecessarily artificial. I did, however, very much enjoy the change to the set between Acts Two and Three, when the orphanage is burning down. The set swivels by, I’d guess, about 20° to the left, so that the suggestion of flames and ash comes pouring onto the stage; all very effective.
Penny Downie gives an impressive performance as Mrs Alving; at first, comfortable in her position in the household, in charge of business deals to the best of her ability, authoritative with Regina, motherly with Oswald, and treading the difficult line of assertive and malleable in her dealings with Manders. As the “ghosts” begin to return, you can see her world beginning to fall apart, and Ms Downie portrays Helen’s increasing desperation and sadness to delicious effect. As her unfortunate son Oswald, Pierro Niel-Mee convincingly shows us the character’s decline, from his robust defence of his beliefs, through alcohol dependence and the hopeless dalliance with Regina, into both physical and mental torture.
Declan Conlon’s Engstrand is a disreputable rogue, who spins a convincing yarn about his seamen’s mission; his performance is such that you can never quite decide on Engstrand’s level of honesty – which nicely adds to the murkier aspects of the plot. Eleanor McLoughlin’s Regina is a picture of well-maintained respectability and knowing her place until the truth of her parentage is revealed – and then the worm turns with acute pain and fury.
But it is James Wilby’s performance as Pastor Manders that you remember the most. A perfect portrayal of utter bigotry, a control freak who intimidates all those who come into his orbit into submission to his will, a weasel who’ll allow others to take the blame for his own mistakes, simply to preserve his own reputation. Ibsen created a repulsively believable hypocrite in Manders, and Mr Wilby gets that mix of bullying and wheedling perfectly. Some of his comments are so outrageous, within the context of Victorian decency, that the audience is propelled into unsettled, anxious laughter. A great performance.
Disgusting, said the commentators at the time. “An open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publicly, a lazar-house with all its doors and windows open” (Daily Telegraph). With critical notices like that, who needs enemies? As always, through the passage of time, the play’s true value and significance is now understood, and this production does it complete justice. It’s only on until 11th May, so you don’t have long to catch it, but you really should.
Production photos by Sheila Burnett