Time the great healer

THEATRE: Ghosts / The Winter's Tale; Lyric Hammersmith

Sunny Sicily and rainy Norway. Geographically, the settings for Method and Madness's double-bill of Ibsen's Ghosts and The Winter's Tale could not be more different. Thematically, however, there's a logic to the pairing. Each of them is concerned with how time can heal or open a wound, and in both works the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children and wives. Of course, the tones of the two plays differ enormously. The Winter's Tale is a story of redemption tinged by loss, while Ghosts foregrounds the despair. It's the difference between sunny spells with showers and the briefest break in the rain.

It rains a lot in Mike Alfreds's production of Ibsen's 1881 tragedy about a son who has inherited syphilis from his dead father, Alving, a man who was seen as a pillar of the community. Paul Dart's set adheres faithfully to Ibsen's original stage directions, with its conservatory at the back through whose windows can be seen a fjord half hidden by the downpour. Outside the weather changes to suit the mood. When the matriarch Fru Alving (Marty Cruickshank) recalls the night she fled her philandering husband and sought refuge with Pastor Manders, the sky turns soot-black.

Cruickshank's Fru Alving is not the spirited, glamorous widow of some productions of this play. When she jokes about being old, she looks old. Her hair, pulled back off her face, makes her look strained and tired, and she has little of the feistiness you might expect from someone of her unconventional views. There certainly doesn't seem to be any residual passion between her and Terence Wilton's excellent Pastor Manders. With his slicked-back, matinee-idol hair and granite jawline, this Manders looks a dead-ringer for Mr Rochester. When he opens his mouth, however, there's a touch of Alastair Sim about both his toothiness and his delivery.

Manders is a difficult role to play. He is the nearest thing Ghosts has to light relief, yet he's also Exhibit "A" in Ibsen's attack on the hypocrisy of Norwegian society. Wilton expertly walks the tightrope between comedy and tragedy.

Ibsen's play walks another kind of tightrope: between naturalism and expressionism. The playwright himself called it "a domestic drama in three acts". Mike Alfreds's production does the domestic bit well, yet that central, horrific symbol of disease never quite infects the imagination. The method is all right, but it could do with a little divine madness.

What Ghosts does for rain, The Winter's Tale does for beards. It boasts some very fine specimens: Abraham Lincoln lookalikes, nativity-play pharaohs, even one (the Old Shepherd's) that seems to have been made out of old bell ropes.They all look fake and they're all meant to look fake.

Faced with the challenge of doing The Winter's Tale with just seven actors, Alfreds has gone for a stripped-down faux-naif look. This is evident not just in the facial hair department, but also in the direction. Leontes' son Mamillius is played by an adult shuffling around on his knees. Several of the court scenes resemble the kind of biblical tableaux found on stained- glass windows. Father Time's monologue, in which he skips over 16 years, is shared out among the cast, several of whom put on their make-up in front of the audience (a device that Alfreds used regularly in his Shared Experience days).

There's nothing wrong with any of that in principle. The trouble is that the children's picture-book staging isn't matched by a childlike energy. Whether it's because the company is reaching the end of a long tour or because it happened to be a matinee, I don't know, but they looked tired. The panto-style bear that pursued Antigonus summed it up: it was definitely larger than life, but it lumbered awfully slowly.

In rep at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (0181-741 2311). To 5 July Adrian Turpin

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