“I’m not sure about the songs but the special effects are supposed to be incredible,” was one friend’s response before heading off to see Ghosts at Brighton’s Theatre Royal. “Um, I think you might be thinking of a different show,” I replied. For, rest assured, there are no musical numbers or sexy encounters at a potter’s wheel in this, Stephen Unwin’s re-imagining of Henrik Ibsen’s 1881 play Ghosts, a miserable reflection on patriarchal society and family secrets.
Osvald (Mark Quartley) is home after years abroad to honour the memory of his dead father, Court Chamberlain Alving. For years Mrs Alving (Kelly Hunter) has been carefully crafting a picture of her late husband as an altruistic and honourable man, through letters to her son and work in the community. With Osvald’s return however, she is powerless to prevent the dark secrets that haunt the family from resurfacing.
Hunter convincingly portrays the inner turmoil of a woman torn between her ‘duty’ to her family and to the truth. She conveys a thinly veiled sense of desperation, which eventually gives way to hysterical despair as it becomes clear that her husband’s indiscretions have had far further-reaching consequences than she could have imagined.
Quartley gives a more physical performance as a slightly mopey Osvald, throwing himself in anguish upon a chaise longue or falling to his knees in drunken self-pity. Initially we struggle to sympathise but by the end of the play he is reduced to such a wretched figure we cannot help but pity him. By contrast, Patrick Drury is superbly austere as the moralising Pastor Mandors, swift to pass stern judgement on others but not immune to his own self-serving discrepancies. He plays the character so coolly that we can only wonder about what other secrets may lay in his past. In particular, his relationship with the maid Regina, played sweetly by Florence Hall, is ever so fleetingly called into question… we might almost think we imagined it.
Pip Donaghy provides some comedic moments as Engstrand, the scheming carpenter, but surprisingly it is Drury’s understated stiffness in the delivery of such lines such as, “It is not a wife’s duty to judge her husband,” that earns the most incredulous laughter.
The set for the production is inspired by the designs of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, who met Ibsen and admired his work. His original paintings were first used as the basis for set designs for a 1906 Berlin performance of the play and have been reinterpreted here by Simon Higlett. The walls of the drawing room in which all of the action takes place are roughly painted in a sickly, indeterminable colour. The room is sparsely populated with antique furniture, including a looming grandfather clock that ticks throughout, drawing the audience deeper into moments of silence. A black chair, a symbol of patriarchal power, sits conspicuously empty at the back of the stage until Osvald, channelling the ghost of his father, finally takes his seat.
The play was scandalous in its time and much maligned by critics when it was first seen. Many of the themes in Ghosts – incest, venereal disease, euthanasia – were extremely provocative to nineteenth-century audiences and still feel uncomfortable, if no longer shocking, today. Perhaps this shock-factor overshadowed some of Ibsen’s social commentary for early viewers.
Ultimately it is the theme of duty that chimes most strongly with contemporary audiences: the fight to reconcile the ‘duty’ imposed on us by society and that which we feel bound to by our own sense of right.
Performed on Tuesday 3 December 2013 at Theatre Royal Brighton.