Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Ghosts

Henrik Ibsen in a version by David Watson
HOME
HOME, Manchester
18 November 2016 to 03 December 2016

Where else but HOME would you be able to watch Jim Jarmusch’s thrilling documentary on The Stooges, one of the most significant and visceral bands in the history of rock’n’roll, in the afternoon, then enjoy a couple of refreshing adult beverages with friends before attending a brand-new, and startlingly in-your-face, version of European theatrical classic Ghosts in the evening? I realize that my particular combination yesterday may not be to everyone’s taste, of course, but the point is how exciting it is to have that available as a possibility.

Without over-personalizing, when I say “in your face” I’m actually speaking somewhat literally as my own seat was situated right in the middle of what was effectively the front row, just to one side of the triangular centre-stage jutting out into the audience. Ordinarily, this could have been problematic but it actually allowed me to see virtually the whole of Johannes Schutz’ set, which seemed to use every last nook and cranny of HOME’s large stage. I fear that might well not have been the case for every seat in the house and that some viewers might not even have been aware of characters just on the edge of the main stage action, potentially able to hear the disclosure of some of the secrets harboured by virtually every character in this dark and claustrophobic family story. But even if some seats might not have been able to see absolutely everything, they surely can’t have missed the unsettling quality of the set, hovering somewhere between the mundanely everyday and the disconcertingly weird – not unlike the popular idea of ghosts, in fact.

There are moments too, when Polly Findlay’s provocative production has its main characters, particularly Niamh Cusack as the widowed Helen Alving, behaving almost as if they are themselves ghosts haunting this dark house of secrets and disturbed by the return of Helen’s prodigal son Osvald (Ken Nwosu).

Osvald has returned from a bohemian life of creativity out in the world apparently to help celebrate the opening of the children’s home finally built in the name of his late father Captain Alving. But it soon turns out that, far from being the public-minded character portrayed by, amongst others, the parsimonious Pastor Manders (Jamie Ballard), old Alving was actually a dissolute and deceitful character whose disastrous legacy poisons the lives and mental well-being of his heirs.

It may sound unlikely that a story involving incest, venereal disease, immorality and illegitimacy (thus considered outlandishly scandalous back in Ibsen’s own day) could have its lighter moments but that’s just one of the achievements of Findlay’s riveting production. The grasping carpenter Jacob Engstrand becomes a hilarious loveable rogue in the capable hands of William Travis (look out for his play Monopoleyes, premiering soon at venues including The Swan in Dobcross, the King’s Arms and Hope Mill), while Norah Lopez Holden’s Regine Engstrand is not just enigmatic, but unexpectedly minxy and strangely charming.

At the centre of this tangled web of emotions and inarticulacy is Niamh Cusack’s agonised Helen, desperate to salvage some love and honesty in her life but apparently thwarted at every turn by the malignant ghost of her late husband. It’s a heart-wrenching performance of considerable subtlety, demanding our constant attention even amidst such a terrific ensemble cast.

Reviewer: Kevin Bourke

Comments

Comment by David Chadderton

I thought that all of the best moments came from Cusack, especially the moment she utters the word "ghosts" after hearing Osvald and Regine in the next room and the heart-wrenching ending, which is almost unplayable but which she got absolutely right.

I didn't think playing Engstrand for laughs worked entirely but does work well some of the time. Certainly a promising performance from Holden, who only graduated from RADA earlier this year.

There are some aspects that jar a little when a play like this is updated, even if only, judging by the set design, to the 1980s. The plot hinges on Osvald unknowingly having inherited syphilis from his father, but we had penicillin even 35 years ago, and some of the debates about a wife's duty would have seemed quaintly old-fashioned even then. The modernised dialogue is a little stilted at times and some of the insertion of slang seems a bit gratuitous.

But despite some longueurs in the middle, when it hits its stride the production ropes you in and doesn't let you go until the terrible ending. It's a powerful piece with a central performance worth seeing.

Comment by David Cunningham

Agree that Norah Lopez Holden is a talent to watch but wasn't taken in by William Travis's lovable rouge. The revelation that Engstrand was planning to pimp out his daughter came too early in the play for the character to be seen as anything other than a creep.