THEATRE

Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Mike Alfreds. Northcott Theatre, Exeter (01392 493493) and then touring
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The Independent Culture
"With love to lead the way/I've found more clouds of gray/Than any Russian play/Could guarantee." Ira Gershwin's lyric sums up the mistaken image of Russian drama: doom and gloom in four acts. As far as most people are concerned, Ibsen runs the Russians a close second. But Mike Alfreds, director of Method and Madness, isn't convinced. "Ibsen's actually much funnier than one thinks." He should know. Years ago he directed The Wild Duck, he's done Hedda Gabler twice, and now, fresh from the triple triumph of his outstanding productions of Jude the Obscure, Private Lives and Flesh and Blood, he's directing Ghosts. "Ibsen has this reputation for boring old realism, but the more you dig beneath the surface, the more amazing it becomes. Every little phrase has resonances. It's incredibly rich, full of ironies and ambiguities."

Another misapprehension is that Ibsen wrote "issue" plays. A Doll's House is supposedly "about" feminism, Hedda Gabler, the institution of marriage; An Enemy of the People, social conscience. Ghosts has more than its fair share of grand themes: past and present, truth and lies, even syphilis. Other directors have leaped to illustrate this with analogies around Aids, but Alfreds sees Ibsen as rooted in his period. If you don't show the society in which the characters live, "you end up with passionate subtext but none of the external pressures which produce it".

Alfreds has translated the play himself, working with a bilingual translator to create an initial, literal version of the text. "That way I learn what is a quote or a pun or a reference. If you use someone else's translation, you don't know what choices they've made."

For Alfreds, it's like reading a detective story, spending rehearsals looking for clues. And what have they discovered? "It's about how people lead their lives and the different level of lies they tell. The movement of the play is about revelation." Judging by his track record - he's the hot tip for Best Director in the Regional Theatre awards - it's not just the play which should prove a revelation.

EYE ON THE NEW

Wunderkind Mathew Warchus directs Yasmina Reza's fascinating European- wide smash-hit Art with the stellar cast of Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and Ken Stott. Christopher Hampton's translation is typically smart and funny. A far safer bet than this week's revival of the overrated Mojo.

In preview, Wyndham's Theatre (0171-369 1736). Opens Tuesday 15 October.

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