“Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sands of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.”
There are no ghosts in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. No bumps in the night. No spooks under the bed. No exorcists in the attic. The title is more of a metaphor, a hovering waif of a symbol, an idea of lingering patterns; the return of the past upon the present.
What’s so spellbinding, then, about Richard Eyre’s production – recorded and released for download on DigitalTheatre.com this Thursday – is that he directs it as if there are.
The stage is stripped down and simple: a dining table here, a couple of chairs there. That is all brooding mother Helene Alving needs to dote on her newly returned son, Oswald. After years abroad being an artist, he has come back to the fold – a wayward prodigal welcomed into the God-fearing flock.
Ibsen’s skill is watching that familiar narrative – which plays out in a single, 90-minute act – gradually become possessed by another.
Lesley Manville is fantastic as the lonely mother and wife, who is working with the local pastor to erect an orphanage in the name of her late husband, the “Honourable Captain Alving”. But underneath that faded exterior is a fiery matriarch, the kind of woman who reads pamphlets about women’s rights – ideas that horrify Will Keen’s man of the cloth.
The pair provide the best little moments in an hour and a half full of best little moments; his timid feelings for her and her oh-so-devoted, righteous demeanour are fraught with humour and awkward tension, which erupt in tiny gestures or exclamations. The text’s simplicity, never delivering more than mannered conversation, enables the digital recording to zoom in on those details. Where some productions might lose their atmosphere on screen amid frantic set pieces or lavish effects, Ghosts is an ideal fit for video; the cameras capture the chamber-piece intimacy through the power of the close-up.
When Jack Lowden’s louche Oswald enters the frame, then, the spitting image of his dad, we get a good look at his pipe-smoking cockiness; we hear his shouts at the pastor and the imbeciles who believe in God; we witness his womanising with Helene’s learned, daughter-like maid, Regina, who learns French in the hope of being whisked away to Paris by Oswald.
As Helene and the pastor exchange pleasantries, Tim Hatley’s subtle set design cuts the stage in two with a semi-transparent curtain; a veil through which we see the faint bodies of Oswald and his new belle, acting out the old rituals. Here is where Eyre finds his spirits, visiting echoes of history upon a creaky old house. Trapped inside the dank, green walls, slowly rotting away through inherited disease, their figures are spectres of a memory that, tragically, becomes all too corporeal for Manville’s ruthless mother.
“Ghosts, they don’t die,” she laments. “They don’t vanish. They walk the world again.”
As the sun rises following a night of revelations, the stage appears to be consumed by bright red fire. There are no real ghosts in Ibsen’s play. But Eyre’s direction makes sure this gripping drama is both spooky and haunting.
Director: Richard Eyre
Cast: Lesley Manville, Jack Lowden
Venue: Trafalgar Studios, London