Review: Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Almeida theatre

Lesley Manville as Helene Alving and Jack Lowden as Oswald Alving.  Photo Hugo Glendinning

Lesley Manville as Helene Alving and Jack Lowden as Oswald Alving. Photo Hugo Glendinning

Between new plays and Shakespeare performed in modern dress, it seems it’s only the late nineteenth century playwrights who are performed in period setting any more (the odd production by Benedict Andrews notwithstanding). All joking aside, there is a special challenge – but also revelation – when the period setting comes alive to carry the heart of the play in a timeless way.

Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Almeida, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre, is such a pleasure. The story of a family in the course of an evening, when five people are connected in different – sometime unexpected – ways and the ghosts of the past strangle the present. It’s not other people’s but one’s choices that haunt the play. And that ultimate crime of all, to be untrue to one’s self.

The production has simplicity and confidence and a rare unhurried richness. Set and lighting are grave but not dour. If joy is in short supply in this place, it is vividly suggested that it lives elsewhere and people can – and should – find it for the salvation of their souls. The wood and glass and tapestry of the set are like a magic mirror – unbearable one moment, warm and comforting the next.

Lesley Manville’s Helene, the person with the clearest vision and therefore the greatest responsibility, bears herself with a confidence earned in fire and ice. When new revelations put her to new tests, the desperation is acid, as she felt safe in the sacrifices she had made in the past. Jack Lowden as Oswald has an earnest restlessness, a youthful sincerity that tragically burns before it changes to maturity.

But for me the stand out presence is Will Keen’s Manders, a man whose insides have melted from the desires he denied himself in the past. New revelations and doubts creep in to blow away the ashes of the nuclear reaction and leave just the shadow. His performance barely holds together a man who is about to disintegrate. The slightest breeze from Helene’s movement sends his soul in invisible, but tangible, spasms.

The running time is a taut ninety five minutes without interval, almost unheard for an Ibsen play. That small investment in time is richly rewarded with a lean visceral production.

A word of warning about the seating: the last two seats at far house right are limited visibility for an important scene of the play. If you have a choice and want side seats, go with house left.

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