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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Michael Billington

Ibsen’s Ghosts: a resounding flop that still returns to haunt us

Lesley Manville (Helene Alving) and Jack Lowden (Oswald Alving) in Ghosts at the Almeida, London, in 2013.
‘A kind of hope against hope’ … Lesley Manville (Helene Alving) and Jack Lowden (Oswald Alving) in Ghosts at the Almeida, London, in 2013. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Today most of us believe in Ghosts so we forget what a rough ride Ibsen’s play initially had. In the early 1880s it was brutally rejected not only by the theatres in Ibsen’s native Norway but by all the major European playhouses. Even more crucially for Ibsen, who depended heavily on the income from his play-texts, the published edition was a resounding flop: of the 10,000 copies printed, most remained unsold.

Now, of course, Ghosts is seen as a classic and, by a happy chance, its revival at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will be followed in the West End by Thomas Ostermeier’s production of An Enemy of the People: the play written immediately after Ghosts in which Ibsen vented his fury at the stupidity of his fellow countrymen.

It seems right that Ghosts should be staged, in a new version by Joe Hill-Gibbins, at the Globe’s indoor space since Ibsen ranks second in the dramatic canon only to Shakespeare. But, much as we may admire Ghosts, it has not always had an easy passage on the British stage. I am not just referring to the hysterical reaction to the play’s London premiere in 1891 when the Daily Telegraph described it as “an open drain, a dirty act done publicly, a lazar house with all its doors and windows open”. Nor am I thinking of the fact that it wasn’t until 1914 that the Lord Chamberlain licensed public performances, as opposed to those by private theatre clubs. My own early exposure to Ghosts left an impression of claustrophobic morbidity that seemed inevitable for a work that deals with incest, sexually transmitted disease and euthanasia. But I would pick out a trio of productions from the last four decades that have radically shifted our perspective on the play.

The first, in 1986, was a production by David Thacker that moved from the Young Vic into the West End and that starred Vanessa Redgrave. She is an actor who does nothing by halves and reveals in her autobiography that she learned Norwegian and saw the play’s attack on dead ideas and obsolete beliefs as highly topical at the time of perestroika and glasnost under President Gorbachev. She has a point but what made the production electrifying was the idea that the characters were not doomed from the start but had a vision of alternative possibilities. You saw this in the way Redgrave’s Mrs Alving enthusiastically nibbled the ear of Tom Wilkinson’s Pastor Manders in an attempt to rekindle past fires: these were not the usual sedate old codgers but a couple still young enough to make their brush with romance a potent memory. Even Adrian Dunbar’s Oswald had a fiery joie de vivre rather than looking as if he were doomed from his first entrance.

Jane Lapotaire (Mrs Alving) and Simon Russell Beale (Oswald Alving) in Ghosts at the Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1993.
Jane Lapotaire (Mrs Alving) and Simon Russell Beale (Oswald Alving) in Ghosts at the Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1993. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Katie Mitchell’s 1993 RSC production at Stratford’s The Other Place had the advantage of a tip-top cast who brought out the complexity of Ibsen’s characters: Jane Lapotaire’s Mrs Alving was a liberal free-thinker but psychologically possessive, John Carlisle’s Pastor Manders was a man of spiritual sincerity devoured by amour propre and Simon Russell Beale’s Oswald was no haggard wraith but a figure whose tragic fate only slowly became apparent. But the main revelation was the influence of climate on character: Mitchell and her designer, Vicki Mortimer, had both travelled widely in Norway and caught perfectly that country’s amazingly swift transitions from golden sunlight to sodden, inspissated gloom.

Twenty years later Richard Eyre’s approach was even more radical. He gave us the play, initially at the Almeida and then in the West End and on film, in a 90-minute version which had a Sophoclean intensity. The language of his text was often brutally direct: Oswald described the bourgeois worthies who attacked Bohemian lifestyles as “moralising cretins”. But, most of all, Eyre reminded us of the truth of an observation once made by Harold Clurman about Ibsen’s characters: that, however, grave the situation, “they still possess a compact force, almost a buoyancy, a kind of hope against hope”. Lesley Manville’s brilliant Helene Alving was a highly sexed liberated woman who, until the moment when she was again spurned by Manders, was fired by optimistic idealism. And, at the end, as Jack Lowden’s Oswald confronted the consequences of his inheritance, she and her son engaged in a physical fight over the prospect of assisted death.

I realise there is something odd about resurrecting old Ghosts when Ibsen’s play warns us against being bound to the past. But if we have learned anything from the last 40 years it is that we need to rescue this play from a mood of foreseeable doom and that Ibsen’s great tragedy is not diminished by an awareness of its sexiness and ironic comedy: it is, if anything, hugely enhanced by it.

• Ghosts is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, 10 November-28 January

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