Saturday, 28 September 2013


Almeida theatre
27 September 2013

A trailer inspired by paintings by Vilhelm Hammershøi
Not really relevant to the the drama, but evocative.

A devastating analysis of family life, in the greatest production it is likely to receive.

This was one of the most harrowing experiences I have had in a theatre, a triumphant vindication both of Ibsen’s most affecting tragedy and of director Richard Eyre’s traditional approach.

I must admit that when I first saw the set, I feared this might turn out to be the kind of comfortable experience in the theatre that people in Ibsen’s own time expected, and which really hasn’t changed since.

But Eyre’s direction is so assured that Ibsen’s unfolding plot reduced me to an emotional wreck within the first few minutes. Thankfully both Ibsen and Eyre lighten the tone a little, providing enough breathing space that the tragic climax is almost unbearable when it comes.

Lesley Manville’s central performance of Helene Alving was astonishing. She appeared near sobbing at the curtain calls, and applauding seemed in bad taste – it really was as if we had just seen her kill her only son, and only remaining lifeline.

It wouldn’t have worked so well if the rest of the cast were any less impressive. Will Keen’s Pastor Manders in particular seemed close to apoplexy throughout, as Helene revealed the full situation, her misery and the terrible consequences of what he felt was the greatest struggle of his life in rejecting her.

In a production as good as this, the full impact of Ibsen’s dissection of our families could be realised, even though Eyre blended acts to permit the whole thing to be played without interval.

The most important of Ibsen’s revelations was given full significance. Helene realises that she played a role in making her husband unhappy; that both were trapped in a situation neither could control. The misery of the moment is almost unendurable but in fact we have to endure worse shortly afterwards.

What distinguishes this from other miserable dramas, what elevates it to tragedy, is Helen’s gradual self-realisation, and hence the tragic grandeur she achieves when she understands she must kill her son.

Everyone else, while important and well constructed characters, are important mostly because of the way they help Helene – and us – come to her understandings.

Everyone should see this production. And we should all be grateful for Manville in giving us this unique and terrible experience.

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