Ibsen’s play was written to shock, and succeeded; at the time, the Daily Telegraph christened it “a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publically... literary carrion.” The play’s carnal subversions and frenzies now sound muffled in a way that Nora’s final door slam of A Doll’s House isn’t, quite, but Richard Eyre’s harrowing staging means that these ghosts have lost none of their power to haunt.
Tim Hatley’s set is beautiful and painterly, with perspex panels that mean the shadowed figures in the next room are always close – ready to eavesdrop on the family secrets spilling softly out. The play’s warns that these ghosts can’t stay hidden long, with revelations foreshadowed in quiet confidences, unheard but noticed by the play’s younger characters. Ghosts are dark stains imprinted on memories, that like the holes in a player-piano reel are inevitably fallen into and repeated as time rolls on.
Helene is at the play’s centre – a kind of parallel Nora, but one who stayed with her family and suppressed her pain into quiet, agonised domesticity. As the play starts she’s a widow treasuring up the memory of her dead husband in an orphanage built as, and with, his legacy. But the local priest, Pastor Manders, is chipping away at its unsteady foundations, and her plan to tell her son Oswald the truth about his father threatens to destabilise them altogether. Meanwhile, the bored and pettish maid Regina tries to slot into this narrow world, and her disreputable father Jacob strings out its tensions to reel in some profit for himself.
The interwoven group are confined to one room as their stories close in together and sicken – as we do too, compressed together in a play taken in a 90 minute swoop straight through. This is very much Lesley Manville’s show, her performance of Helene the emotional centre – and Richard Eyre’s sharp cuts to Ibsen’s text, which under Stephen Unwin’s direction was a full hour longer, emphasise her central role. Lesley Manville’s performance is brilliantly real, and feels somehow modern too – her alternating rebelling against and submission to convention and Pastor Mander’s demands is agonising. Against her emotional warmth, Jack Lowden’s Oswald seems thin and nineteenth-century priggish. His romantic artist’s past in Paris is cut to a ghost, fantastical in comparison to his affected, back home with mother present, and making it hard to empathise with his Utopian dreams of free love.
The atmosphere is unremitting. But there are moments of levity and brilliant subtlety, too. Charlene McKenna as Regina’s deliberately, agonisingly deployed French phrases are gently comic, then gently tragic, as the depth of the hopes resting on them becomes clear. And Pastor Manders and her father Jacob dance the age-old jig of the sanctimonious fool and the wily trickster with deft steps, with Brian McCardie’s liquor-sweet protestations of innocence making him a plausible match for Adam Kotz’s half-holy, half-hypocrite gullibility.
Ibsen’s frank treatment of venereal disease, adultery and sexual morality was hugely controversial at the time. Now, enough has changed – not least since the AIDS iceberg has thawed a little – to soften any analogies drawn with the present day. The nineteenth century fear of both moral and physical contagion is largely gone, meaning that the play’s central image is drained of force, and Helene’s departed husband of horror. But although our capacity to be shocked by a man coercing a woman into taking a glass of wine has waned, and free love is no longer the subject of bilious Daily Telegraph editorials, the suppression of Helene and Regina’s potential is all the more shocking.
Helene has the suffragist pamphlets that Nora, imprisoned in A Doll’s House, never read, but Ghosts pin her so perfectly that she has no hope of ever acting on them. This production feels like her tragedy, as Richard Eyre condenses the machinery of Ibsen’s family drama into a tightly sprung trap, feverishly claustrophobic.