Ibsen's Ghosts at Trafalgar Studios

Manville In Ghosts

Trafalgar Studios is becoming the new go-to smart theatre venue in town, but when Richard Eyre’s adaptation transferred here from its sell-out success in the Almeida, many were surprised.

But this really is a perfect setting for such a strange, strong play. It is intimate, but not cosy, and the amazing cast do justice to Eyre’s work; the full power of a play so loathed in its own time needs outstanding acting to transcend the harrowing themes of deceit, depression, and illness. The hatred felt by Ibsen's contemporaries for his examination of poignant themes in their lives was stunning. In truth, Ibsen isn’t a laugh a minute, but his work is well worth engaging with, as those acid, hard questions have not disappeared.

Ghosts stars Lesly Manville (Helene), Adam Kotz (Pastor) Jack Lowden (Oswald), Brian McCardie (Jacob) and Charlene McKenna (Regina), such strong artists that we care and follow their characters' lives with interest. After all, the repugnant, self-righteous and self-serving clergyman is not a thing of the past, and neither is the exploitative, drunken father. As for young sons sowing their oats far away, and mothers putting up with far more than is good for anyone, these are themes of 2014, still.

Ibsen has been accused many times to present only the stark, hard, joyless side of life. And here we are asked to face these too, and learn that Helene has stoically borne so many hardships only to see that her beloved son is gravely ill when he finally returns home to her. We see a young girl full of charm and not a little cunning work to 'better' herself, only to see her disappear into misery. We are confronted with a young man who seems to have escaped all the gloom and doom, only to be destroyed through no fault of his own. Where is the joy of life in this? And yet!

In Helene, we also see a woman so full of love for this son that she chose to put up with her own miserable life to support him, and giving him this loving support to the very end. I feel it is her choice we are impressed by, her anger exploding at the pastor at last. And while this hard hitting, gut-wrenching play leaves us exhausted with recognition of our 'condition humaine', we can easily recognise these character traits within ourselves and hence, empathise with this woman. As such, her amazing survival also offers us a strong beam of hope. If a mother’s love can be that powerful, we can hope. If our power is that we make a decision to live our life to help others and not be self-serving, then there is hope. It is our decision that matters, Ibsen seems to say in this adaptation. A bit stoic, perhaps, but better than living better than mendaciously. Of course, nowadays woman have different options, but it is heart-warming to see a woman in 1881 make tough choices and survive.

This 'dark beauty' is well translated by stage designer Tim Hatley and lighting designer Peter Mumford. They evoke the light and shadows of this play exquisitely, in a very Scandinavian, elegant, simple way. The designers complement the play and reinforce the message via their particular media, a 'Gesamtkunstwerk' approach that pays rich dividends here.

This play, written in 1881, urges us to be honest with our lives and consider the way we live carefully. Is life duty? Or joy? Or is love as shown here, a raw, powerful, all-embracing emotion maybe the answer? Is that the only real joy we can achieve? Are the 'extravagant' feelings Elene is accused of actually the way forward to transcending her contemporary society and its callous attitudes, and we are invited to do similar? Is this what makes us feel less despondent after all the misery portrayed, the certainty, that we can master it if we dare?