THEATRE / When duty fires the blood: Paul Taylor on Ghosts at Stratford and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at the King's Head

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The town happened to be situated by a fjord, but that shouldn't blind an English audience to the fact that Ibsen's Ghosts takes place in an environment that's meant to be as prosaic and provincial as, say, East Molesey.

Katie Mitchell's powerful production at The Other Place, Stratford gets rid of distracting scenery: the conservatory windows in the Alving household afford a view of nothing but dreary greyness, claustrophobia inducing like the sound of the incessant rain. In this milieu, an attack of high spirits would be about as likely, you feel, as a tropical heatwave.

Ghosts, in effect, shows you what would have happened if Nora had not slammed the door on her Doll's House. Renouncing love in the name of duty, Mrs Alving married the wrong man; she hid his debaucheries from the public and from their son, Oswald, whom she sent away at the age of seven, and brought up her husband's illegitimate daughter as her maid. But the respectability which she has engineered so skilfully has been bought at a terrible price, as becomes impossible to ignore when she is widowed and her offspring returns from Paris to the joyless temple of a home.

Having just finished playing Gertrude in Hamlet, Jane Lapotaire now impersonates another mother with acute son trouble. Her performance builds into a quite shattering portrait of a heart-starved woman who longs to enjoy a belated intimacy with her son, but is instead confronted with the possibility of having to send him away again, this time on a permanent basis via euthanasia. The actress's howling dilemma over the poison is an ordeal to witness.

At the start, you can believe that Lapotaire's Alving has read the progressive literature displayed on her table. Flashes of scornful levity escape through the grim barricade of repression in the circling conversations she conducts with John Carlisle's wonderfully smug Pastor Manders. But the gaiety she assumes to divert Oswald and keep him with her is heartbreaking in its hollowness. Stern misery has become such a fixture in the set lines of her face that she is about as likely to acquire a lighthearted manner as Swahili.

With Oswald, Simon Russell Beale continues his brilliant apprenticeship for the Hamlet he will surely one day give us (he's even had a blond rinse). As his Konstantin demonstrated two seasons back, he excels at conveying injured rage and resentment at parental neglect that seems inseparable from a deep self-disgust. Fat hand fluttering like a wounded bird over a face puce with shame, Beale brilliantly shows you the conflicts in Oswald. Oswald here alternates between wanting to throw himself on his mother and reveal his guilty secret and to draw away, punishingly, with a remote, judicial air, as if to underline the estrangement that unnecessary years apart have caused.

There's a pent up unpredictability about him: one moment he's gazing at a newspaper, the next he's neurotically screwing it up. But again as he did in the Chekhov, Beale brings a terrible dignity to the portrayal of young men floundering in shame. He made Konstantin's suicide seem the considered act of a suddenly mature man, not the retaliation of a peeved adolescent. So here, when he points to his brain to show where the syphilis will spread, the moment is imbued with a quiet adult lucidity, and the thought of his being reduced to slobbering infantilism is especially painful. As the sun seeps in over distraught mother and patient, the conclusion is made all the more devastating for the cheerful birdsong that falls on the scene like a solecism.

Although it also focuses on a desperately sick child, the surface mood could not be more different in Peter Nichols' A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, now compellingly revived by Lisa Forrell at the King's Head in London. The central presence is the daughter, a 10-year- old, wordless 'vegetable'. Around her the parents weave fantasies, crack sick jokes, and play-act situations that have arisen through her illness, confiding in the audience directly in a manner that blasts through the cosy conventionality of the domestic setting. Helped by lovely performances from Clive Owen as Bri and Elizabeth Garvie as Sheila, the effect is of knockabout Vaudeville with a piercingly sad undertow. The clowning, the inventing of responses and personalities for their nonentity of an offspring, may make it easier for this couple to cope, but the barbed, jocular routines can't camouflage the deep difficulties in their own relationship.

A very funny, tartly humane play, Joe Egg confronts you with all the various views on what should be done in this situation and lets you see that easy answers are a luxury that may be indulged in only by those who can keep the problem at arm's length. John Warnaby and Gabrielle Cowburn are authentically ghastly as the well-heeled visiting couple, but you feel their attitudes would get under our skin more if Nichols had made them less of a caricature. Excellent Pauline Delany makes Bri's mother a matriarch you'd emigrate to evade. 'A shame it's dated,' said a woman behind me. I couldn't disagree more.

'Ghosts' is at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon. Box office: 0789-295 623; 'A Day in the Death of Joe Egg' is at the King's Head, London. Box office 071-226 1916

(Photograph omitted)

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