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Death, motherhood and venereal disease: Ibsen’s Ghosts

Ghosts, a bleak but enticing Ibsen play about death and family, superbly acted.


Marking the twentieth anniversary of the English Touring Theatre, founded in 1993 by Stephen Unwin, Ghosts is Unwin’s incredibly stirring swansong production at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, after six successful years as its artistic director.  Ghosts opened at the Rose Theatre before a six week UK tour. Hugely skilled at bringing Henrik Ibsen’s sinister family dramas to life, Unwin makes a powerful impact on his audience with his seventh production of one of the Norwegian playwright’s ‘theatrical realism’ masterpieces.

The story follows the aftermath of the death of Mrs Alving’s (Kelly Hunter) philandering, adulterous husband, and the effects on her artist son Osvald (Mark Quartley), who returns home after a long time upon learning of his father’s death. As dark truths emerge throughout the play, the ghosts of the dead take a greater hold on the living.  A strong, sombre study of death, adultery, breakdown in almost every sense, the hypocrisy of the Church, infidelity, lies, incest, venereal disease and desperate unhappiness, I would probably not recommend Ghosts if you’re more of a comedy enthusiast.  Although, before you instantly shrug it off and spend your money on Barking in Essex tickets instead, it must be said that there are many attributes which made Ghosts thoroughly enticing and enjoyable, despite its bleak subject matter. Indeed, the subject matter alone immediately lends the play the potential to have an immense impact, whilst moving its audience at the same time. Thankfully, comic relief is occasionally provided by endearing Engstrand (Pip Donaghy).

Kelly Hunter as the female lead Mrs Alving successfully stole the show. The perfectly executed desperation, loneliness and wretchedness of the widow culminate at the end of the play, combined with a mother’s love for her son, in the decision of whether to euthanise the syphilis-ridden Osvald (a decision which is left unknown). Hunter is clearly brilliant. In addition, a moment has to be taken here to consider the risk and boldness shown by Ibsen. Writing about topics such as this in 1881 and making such an attack on 19th century morality meant fearlessly diving into a sea of controversial, frowned-upon topics. Such theatrical rebelliousness definitely demands a certain amount of respect!

Another aspect which brought effortless skill to the play was Simon Higlett’s set design, based upon the 1906 Edvard Munch layout. Famously known for the universally recognisable The Scream, Munch was commissioned by Max Reinhardt in 1906 to design the set for Ghosts. This is the first time since the 1906 Berlin production that these designs have been used, and Higlett really does bring the paintings to life. The bleak design perfectly sets out the tone of the play. The shoulder-hunched, eerily faceless figures, dressed almost head-to-toe in black, are matched to the large, ominous black chair facing toward the living room window which seems to dominate the set, and will later bear the symbols of the burning orphanage and the rising sun. Higlett captures this ill-omened design perfectly, even with the not-so-subtle portrait of the sinister Mr Alving looming over the set from start to finish.

With regards to narrative, my impression leant towards (perhaps intentional) disjointedness. A central point of the play is Mrs Alving’s attempts to lessen the effects of her dastardly husband’s death on her beloved son who, by inherited factors, cannot avoid the melancholy aftermath. This seems to be more related to the second half, where the stark darkness and horror leaves the audience in a state of shock, mostly at the jolting speediness of theme transition. The first half is almost entirely focused on a conversation between Mrs Alving and the destructive, stern (but not without comic disbelief) Pastor Manders (brilliantly played by Patrick Drury). It focuses more on the battle between the hypocrisy, demand for social conformity and conservatism of the Victorian Church and the conflicting views of the liberalism yearned for by long-mistreated Mrs Alving. While Osvald’s character is used as a catalyst and his illness implied in the first half, it does seem a somewhat insufficient grounding for the second half, which in turn makes his gelling with other characters quite difficult. Perhaps more attention to character development of Osvald in the first half would have made the darkness and horror of the second half less of an unexpected consternation.

By the end of the play, however, this awkward transition seems distant, and the audience is left gripped by a palpable awe; the acting is superb, the last few minutes are thoroughly suspenseful and enthralling, and executed perfectly by Hunter and Quartley. Unwin’s veteran translation of Ibsen’s Ghosts is a must-see.

Ghosts runs until 12th October at the Rose Theatre, Kingston before heading on a UK tour until the end of the year. Buy tickets here

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