Ghosts | Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

There is no ray of hope, only unremitting gloom in Ibsen's Ghosts. "We sail," commented the playwright, "with a corpse in the cargo." And in the play's pitiless exposure of the wreckage of lives by the ghosts of times past, the unhappy legacy bequeathed from father to son, this corpse stinks.

There is no ray of hope, only unremitting gloom in Ibsen's Ghosts. "We sail," commented the playwright, "with a corpse in the cargo." And in the play's pitiless exposure of the wreckage of lives by the ghosts of times past, the unhappy legacy bequeathed from father to son, this corpse stinks.

Ghosts paints a haunting picture of the appalling misery Mrs Alving's husband caused her, the only positive element being the integrity of character she has assumed during the sham of domestic life with the late Captain Alving. Skeletons are not so much rattled as violently forced out. Old ghosts don't so much flit around the borders as trample cruelly across the stage of these characters' hopes and aspirations.

Gregory Hersov's compelling production, fittingly dedicated to the memory of the leading Ibsen scholar and staunch Royal Exchange supporter, Michael Meyer, benefits greatly from his excellent cast, who ably sustain the narrative framework of so much duologue. Frances Tomelty, brave, impetuous and touchingly overjoyed to have her son back in her country house, portrays Mrs Alving as isolated both personally - after years of sharing in a shameful conspiracy hidden from the conventional world outside - and physically, living on the edge of a fjord where it always rains.

Pastor Manders, a black-coated priest quite unequal to the changing world around him, convinced of his own moral rectitude and only too willing to bring others to judgement is brought to chillingly real life by David Horovitch. In each of his exchanges with the other four characters he shows a different side of his being, leaving no doubt as to just how multi-faced this man of the cloth is.

The course of Ibsen's meticulously plotted play is not without its faults. At times it clunks in terms of pacing and in the pre-echoes of revelations to come, but the strength of Hersov's reading lies in his focus on Ibsen's words, rather than lavish production. It's the characters that matter and, as Ibsen hoped, we really do feel as if we're sharing in an experience as far more than a casual onlooker.

"One doesn't need to talk about those things," declares the pastor at one point, but here many of the things that society still often prefers to brush under the carpet are acutely observed, and illuminated with extraordinary sharpness of detail. When the death-dealing truth has finally been revealed, leaving Mrs Alving facing the ultimate dilemma, she cries pitifully for help. The demons may have been exorcised and the ghosts finally laid to rest, but as the dark curtain metaphorically falls, she is on her own. Never, surely, have the strains of Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet provided a bleaker comment.

To 7 Oct (0161-833 9833)

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