Rose theatre, Kingston
9 October 2013
A better trailer than drama usually gets. From here.
A slow progress from darkness and ghosts to light and tragedy.
A performance of Ghosts is extremely upsetting. That is too mild a term, but it conveys something of the nature of this great tragedy.
His friend and champion Edmund Gosse felt the best of Ibsen was elsewhere, which would be a staggering claim, except Gosse seems to have viewed Ibsen's work as literature more than drama, which must be experienced in the theatre.
Gosse was surely correct if he meant that none of the characters here are as compelling as some of Ibsen’s other creations; the interest is more plot-focussed, but that may also be said of Oedipus Rex and the tragedies of Racine.
To give an example of the master's theatricality, it is an incredibly painful irony that Helene’s self-realisation comes when it does. She becomes aware that she is inadvertently the cause of much of her own misery, as well as that of her husband, of Oswald and of Regina. This knowledge results in Regina’s immediate rejection, and as a result, Oswald’s terrible request of her.
In a novel, perhaps in another Ibsen drama, this self-realisation would be given greater prominence. Here it initiates the final turn of the screw of the plot, and the audience soon shares Helene’s dreadful situation, too awful to endure for long.
However, Helene (and too a lesser extent Oswald) is something of a heroic figure, and that is important. We care that she has, from the start, penetrated the veil of hypocrisy under which she was brought up. The drama is a machine moving around her struggle between outer and inner morality, a universal struggle as Ibsen makes clear.
That she cannot control the consequences is also universal, but she remains heroic, even gains in stature after her moment of self-realisation. Here, as elsewhere, Ibsen reclaims heroism for us, though he depicts a path no easier for us than say Achilles’ path was for classical Greeks.
This is the second production I’ve seen recently, and it’s hard not to compare with Richard Eyre’s gripping account.
Both productions are traditional. Stephen Unwin, like Eyre wearing both translating and directing hats, apparently honours the birth of Edvard Munch 150 years ago by basing the designs on those Munch suggested for Max Reinhardt. As a result, the set is slightly gloomier than Eyre’s, who chose a different painter (Hammershøi) for inspiration. A back projection compensates with beautiful images of Norwegian mountains, the vast space contrasting with domestic suffering.
Unwin’s approach comes perilously close to being portentous. In a short drama, his version takes maybe 20 minutes longer than Eyre’s, and although he cuts less text, he also introduces more pauses. The slower tempo places great strain on the actors, especially Kelly Hunter’s Helene Alving, who sometimes seems to be stuck in a particular expression for a theatrical eternity, though probably just a few seconds objectively.
This weightiness is sometimes lightened by humour, especially involving Pip Donaghy’s Jakob Engstrand, a memorably rascally portrayal. The slower tempo also reveals the work’s symbolism of stifling interiors and rain-soaked exteriors gradually giving way, first to the light of a blaze, and then to the fateful dawn.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Unwin and Eyre is their realisation of Pastor Manders. Patrick Drury remains mostly calm, and so adds to the slower sense of this production. His Manders is entirely unsympathetic.
The final scene is as agonising as it must always be. For Eyre this caps a dizzying descent into tragedy, whereas for Unwin it is the climax of a gradual laying on of misery.
If in the end I prefer Eyre, this is still a masterful production of one of the most brutal depictions of the lies we need for our society. It's touring: you should see it.