THEATRE / The sins of the father: Paul Taylor reviews Katie Mitchell's compelling production of Ibsen's Ghosts at the Barbican Pit, London

Paul Taylor
Thursday 07 April 1994 23:02

Try to picture Simon Russell Beale playing the part of a youth who gets on simply famously with his mother. The mind balks: it's about as easy as imagining Antony Sher in some fleeting, low-key cameo role. Whether as Konstantin to Madame Arkadina, or Richard III to the Duchess of York, or, here, as Oswald to Mrs Alving in Katie Mitchell's compelling production of Ibsen's Ghosts, his sons have always tended more towards the tortured Bates Motel end of the filial scale than towards the twinkling Rabbi Blue one.

His brilliant depiction of Oswald - the boy whose mother sent him away to Paris to shelter him from the knowledge of his father's degeneracy and who now returns harbouring the syphilis which is his paternal inheritance - gets you in the guts even more in this Pit transfer than it did when the production opened last year at the Other Place.

Notice how his hand strokes the mother's hair with an abstracted tenderness that makes it look as if he's still doing this more in yearning imagination than in actuality, and notice how the hand is instinctively snatched away when Jane Lapotaire's gamut-spanning Mrs Alving attempts to touch it. His eyes, too, convey a man torn between the desire to appeal to this woman for help and the urge to punish her for what he regards as years of pointless estrangement. Squirming with shame at his condition, he may conceal his eyes behind a pudgy hand, but then whenever he manages to blurt out the next scalding instalment of the truth, those frightened eyes bulge in goggling curiosity, monitoring every twitch of how his mother registers the shock. It's an inquisitiveness that seems inseparably bound up with the thwarted intensity of his love.

In my review of the Stratford opening, there wasn't space to do anything like justice to John Carlisle's masterly portrayal of Pastor Manders, the cleric whose rigid advocacy of society's false ideals has had such a disastrous effect on this household. Confronting the world with a face of grimly ashen aquilinity, Carlisle's Manders is a wonderfully comic creation and a seriously disturbing one, both qualities stemming from the same source: the utter benighted sincerity and intransigence that sharply separate this man of rectitude from a Tartuffe or an Angelo.

Carlisle inflects a line like 'I don't understand how I swallowed a mouthful of that excellent meal' so that Manders seems serenely oblivious to the incongruity of the word 'excellent' on which he lays a slight, pampered, overly judicial stress. It's at once amusing and infuriating to watch this figure being taken in by John Normington's transparently disingenuous Engstrand, who, here, is all cap-in-hand unction and inclined to move himself to crocodile tears at the least provocation.

But if Manders' failure to cotton on to the pert overtures of Alexandra Gilbreath's determined Regina causes more of a grin than a grimace, the obduracy with which he refuses to unbend before Lapotaire's mixture of piteous entreaties and sardonic wiles is shattering in its cold preference for lofty principle over intimate human detail. Yet it is also Carlisle's achievement to make you aware, at moments, how it must feel from the inside to be this kind of person. His is a splendid performance in an account of the play which, as regards recent Ibsen productions, is up there with Warner's Hedda Gabler and Hall's Wild Duck.

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