Theatre review: Ibsen's Ghosts - 'A spell-binding production'

The play's emotional daring and dark humour are conveyed here with matchless immediacy

The ghosts in Ibsen's great play are not wraiths or revenants, but those recurring patterns of behaviour, those dead ideas, customs and orthodoxies that we inherit and find it almost impossible to escape.

Helene Alving, the protagonist, finally summons the courage to cut through the accumulation of lies and cant by revealing that her husband was a dissolute scoundrel who made her life a misery. The tragedy is that she does so too late, at a point which coincides with the realisation that Oswald, her painter son, newly returned from Paris, is being destroyed by the lethal patrimony of syphilis. 

Using his own sharp, swift-footed adaptation, Richard Eyre's spell-binding production builds to its shattering climax in an unbroken 90-minute arc. The play's emotional daring and its dark humour are conveyed here with a matchless immediacy, the dialogue sounding fresh and new-minted (as when Oswald rails at how the beauty of life is “smeared with muck by moralising cretins”) without ever lapsing into anachronism, and the performances unfold with an extraordinary alertness and intensity.

The superb Lesley Manville is a subtle and searching Mrs Alving. There's a slight edge of recklessness to the bitter humour and sardonic disappointment with which she confronts Pastor Manders, the Lutheran minister who insisted that she return to her husband when she sought his love and help. Bald-domed and dried-up-looking, Will Keen brings out what is grimly ludicrous in this officious spiritual adviser who, while obdurately convinced of his rightness, is an unerringly bad judge of character. His essentially bureaucratic, scandal-fearing soul is disclosed here in a lovely moment when, with more passion than he has shown for anything hitherto, he indignantly howls, “you made me put false information in the Parish Register” and points an accusing finger at Brian McCardle's Engstrand, the reprobate who is a dab hand at milking his gullibility.

Though he resisted being labelled as such, you could argue that Ibsen was doubly a feminist because he was at once so acute about the restrictions of a woman's life and yet not prepared to let his female characters off the hook. Manville is deeply affecting and unforced when, with a quiet, clear-eyed courage, Mrs Alving acknowledges her part in creating the joylessness of this tragic household. As Jack Lowden's shambling, anguished Oswald goes into his climactic decline and a harrowingly distraught Manville contemplates euthanasia, the ghostly translucent walls of Tim Hatley's set are flushed with a blood-red dawn – a spectacle that could rival any horror in Greek tragedy.

To November 23; 020 7359 4404