Review – Ghosts, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd April 2019

GhostsThey 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.

Manders in chargeWho 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.

Regina Engstrand and MandersWhen 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.

Helen and MandersMike 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.

Helen with ghostsPenny 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.

ReginaDeclan 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.

MandersBut 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.

Helen and OswaldDisgusting, 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

Review – Imperium, RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 7th December 2017

ImperiumWhat’s an imperium, I hear you ask? Good question. Tiro, Cicero’s slave, whom he frees to become his personal secretary, explains all in the first play of Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy. Imperium is the word the Romans used to mean the power of life and death given by the State into the hands of a single individual. In other words, if you get an imperium, you’re an awfully powerful guy.

Cicero the ConsulI had no expectations of this theatrical treat in advance of the full day’s commitment required to see the plays in one fell swoop. Gentle reader, I am no classics scholar, unless you count my Latin O level, Grade B, of which I am (I believe) justly proud. Before seeing this production, I knew very little of Cicero; apparently, he came from a family of chick-pea magnates, who knew? I haven’t read Robert Harris’ books, although I did spot him in the audience – along with, inter alia, Richard Wilson and Jeremy Irons. I know, shamelessly star-spotting. If anything, I was fearful of a rather dry and dusty Latinate trawl through speeches and murders and Ides of March. And whilst those elements do exist in this seven hours plus marathon (yes, really), there’s absolutely nothing dry or dusty about it. In fact, I had no idea at all that within the first ten minutes I’d be laughing my head off at the interplay between Tiro, nattering intimately with the audience, and Cicero, moaning in the background, complaining of Tiro’s excessive exposition.

Tiro the SecretaryThis is a hugely entertaining, beautifully written, superbly performed examination of Cicero at the heart of Roman Republic conspiracies, and one of the most enjoyable trips to the theatre I’ve had in ages. There are two plays – Part One, Conspirator, and Part Two, Dictator, and if you don’t see them all on the same day I would most definitely recommend you see them in the right order. Each is split into three parts, so you get the rather old-fashioned delight of having two intervals. I always think that makes more of an event of an evening at the theatre; Coward, Rattigan and their ilk would have been thrilled. Part One follows Cicero’s successful election as Consul, much to the annoyance of his rival Catiline; and the machinations of those other power-players, the super-rich Crassus and the ambitious Julius Caesar. We also see Cicero’s family life, with his loyal but frequently dismayed wife Terentia, and his adored daughter Tullia; and there are his protégés, Clodius and Rufus, neither of whom are entirely reliable. By the end of the first play, Cicero seems to be on his way down, and Clodius is on the ascendant. The second play moves on to Caesar’s success and his murder – which has consequences that permeate the remainder of the evening, plus the subsequent misrule of Mark Antony, and the rise of young Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son.

Antony the UnreliableAnthony Ward’s superb design literally sets the scene, with a close-up of two mosaic eyes on the back wall suggesting that, when in Rome, Frater Magnus is always watching you. Stairs descend on to the stage, creating the perfect illusion of the Senate; behind them are hidden further stairs where the mob might approach from below. Beneath the surface of the main stage, the floor opens up inventively to reveal further stairs down; or Lucullus’ fish pool; or any one of a number of clever entrance/exit opportunities. Gareth Ellis’ merry band of six musicians play Paul Englishby’s stirring incidental music to great effect, at times both spookily conspiratorial and triumphantly magisterial.

Terentia the HumiliatedThere are a couple of things that slightly irritated me about the production; and they are slight. The first, I guess, is Robert Harris’ fault. I was a little disappointed to discover at the beginning of the second play that we don’t get to see what happened under Clodius’ rule; he ends the first play so menacingly that there’s got to be a fine tale to tell there. Sadly, we don’t see it for ourselves, although good old Tiro fills us in with all the missing information that happened between the two plays. Secondly, why does Cicero age throughout the second play, so that by the end he is an old man, whereas neither Tiro nor Cicero’s brother, Quintus, befall the same fate? Maybe they dosed up on the Caligae Numerus Septem; they should let us know their secret. And they didn’t need the unsubtlety of presenting Pompey as a Roman Donald Trump, which was basically a cheap laugh at the expense of a more appropriate characterisation. He should have taken a leaf out of Tiro’s book, who makes some very funny allusions to 2017 Britain and its crises whilst still remaining definitely Anno B.C. However, having a couple of aberrations in seven-and-a-half hours’ worth of theatre is, I think, perfectly forgivable.

Catiline the BrutalI’ve seen Richard McCabe on stage a few times in the past, but nothing could have prepared me for how stupendously good he is as Cicero. I know it’s a cliché, but this genuinely is the role he was born to play. He captures every aspect of his personality perfectly, from his oratory, his thinly veiled faux-humility when he’s told how great he is, his calculating ability to take a risk when dealing with powerful people, to his doting on his daughter and his severe disappointment to his wife. Noble of spirit, but also delightfully human too, he’s a sheer joy to watch. For much of the time he performs an incredibly effective double act with Joseph Kloska as Tiro. A faithful servant, but always on hand to speak his mind and give valuable advice, Mr Kloska gives a tremendous performance. He takes us the audience into his confidence and we look on him as a likeable old pal and a direct conduit for us to get involved in all these political machinations. We trust and admire Tiro, and believe every word he says. For this to work, it’s vital for Mr Kloska to build a great relationship with the audience and he truly does.

Caesar the RuthlessNo one in this wonderful cast puts a foot wrong, with some stunning individual performances and extended scenes of really exciting and memorable drama. Joe Dixon is superb, first as the aggressive and bullying Cataline, scarred and scary, and then in the second play as the mercurial Mark Antony, with his alternating soft and violent approaches to dealing with the SPQR. Peter de Jersey is also riveting to watch as the cutthroat Julius Caesar, from his early days “discussing land reform with the wife of a client” (yeah right) to his maniacally imperious ascendance to becoming a god. Pierro Neel-Mie is outstanding as the louche Clodius, following his progress from caring Ciceronian acolyte to power-mad Tribune; a man who says it’s time to seek a wife, and this time not someone else’s, a man prepared to commit sacrilege at the temple of the Vestal Virgins by waving his willy at them. Mr Neel-Mie returns in the second play as the quietly vicious Agrippa, Octavian’s right-hand man; and you wouldn’t want to cross him.

Cato the InspirationalThere are also excellent performances from Oliver Johnstone as Cicero’s follower-cum-opponent Rufus, and as the totally unnerving Octavian – if ever butter-wouldn’t-melt turned into the sourest desire for retribution, he’s your man. Siobhan Redmond is excellent as Terentia in a performance that progresses directly from comedy to tragedy; as is John Dougall as a delightfully hesitant Brutus, Michael Grady-Hall as a scruffy but charismatic Cato and David Nicolle as a slimy Crassus. But the whole ensemble is magnificent, and everyone works together to create a superb piece of tight, gripping theatre. You’d never know you’d spent virtually all day in the theatre, it’s so enjoyable that the time just flies by.

Octavian the VengefulIf you don’t know how Cicero’s story ends – well I’m not going to tell you, but if a cat has nine lives, I guess he reached his tenth. Find out for yourself by going to see these brilliant plays between now and 10th February 2018.

Production Photos by Ikin Yum