I confess, I took my seat (classy Circle D27, cheers OxStu) in the Playhouse without having so much as glanced at the plot of Ghosts. A text from my dad insisting I book a ticket had catapulted me into a late Tuesday viewing of Ibsen’s critical magnifying glass on 18th-century morality. Too trusting on my part? Not a bit, and bloody worth the showery sprint from GBK and its shoddy service to collect my press ticket. This is theatre at its most provocative: I laughed, gasped, frowned, cried.
From the curtain’s very ascent, the English Touring Theatre inflamed the stage with the characters’ pithy exchanges set against a drizzly mountain backdrop. The story plunged into action with a terse dialogue between the maid Regina and her estranged, depraved father Jakob, before Pastor Manders’ arrival saw off the latter. Mrs Alving, the widowed head of the household, soon made her debut, thus acquainting us with four of the mere five players of Ghosts’ plot. Ethics wasted no time in striking its chord as a key theme, what with each character’s undulating moral rank and dubious (if hitherto cloaked) history.
Retorts and comically-timed pauses made for gaiety in these opening scenes, despite no shortage of ominous signs barely disguising the darker undertone. Ibsen draws up the pastor as a figure of ridicule with his naïvely rigid set of beliefs, and within minutes of Mrs Alving’s artist son Osvalde stumbling through the doors Pastor Manders and he were feuding over the acceptability of a bohemian lifestyle. It takes little guesswork to uncover the haunted psyche of this youth; the Oedipal truth of the father’s sins having visited the son is no secret to the audience. Mrs Alving’s desperation mounts. We leave the family in the eleventh-hour decision, quasi-clueless as to the post-curtain conclusion.
The stage remained a single room throughout, oppressed as it was by bourgeois hypocrisy, sexual double standards, dutiful misery, incest, free love… “Ghosts will probably cause alarm in some circles; but that can’t be helped. If it didn’t there would have been no necessity for me in having written it.” Ibsen’s disaffection with the moral order of his times tumbles into this turbulent script to great effect. Floodgates unbolted with a bang.
And fear not, The Guardian’s bold claim of Stephen Unwin as “the finest director of Ibsen in Britain” is not as dishonest as Ibsen’s characters. Daringly exploiting the power of wordlessness, Unwin sporadically blew a chill in the air with only the clock’s ticking to fill the space. Music featured sparingly; this was a drama of voices. Patrick Drury excelled as Pastor Manders’ voice was drained into hoarseness on discovering the nakedly harsh reality of this domestic tragedy. Kelly Hunter’s Mrs Alving was also spellbinding in her two-hour degeneration of high-octane trills into rasping sobs.
As I left the Playhouse, an elderly lady made the (perceptive) remark “I wouldn’t really say it had the feel-good factor…” Yes, my brimming eyes as the curtain dropped might attest to that. When Stephen Unwin steps down as artistic director of the Rose Theatre this month, Ghosts will have been his swansong. The mountainous dawn of the final scene may have shone misery over Mrs Alving, but it beamed rapturous applause for Unwin and his production. No doubt the misfortune will continue to contain itself to the plot. An exquisite performance.
Ghosts is showing at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 26th October. Tickets £13-£26.50, available here.
PHOTO/ English Touring Theatre