A post of three ‘Ghosts’

2nd October 2013

How fascinating to see three different productions of the same great play in one week. Last Friday I watched a preview of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts adapted and directed by Richard Eyre at the Almeida (until 23 November). Over the weekend I wrote a Screen Plays post after viewing the 1987 BBC television production by Elijah Moshinsky (which is available on the Judi Dench BBC Collection DVD box-set). And tonight I was at The Rose Theatre in Kingston for Stephen Unwin’s new production of the play (until 12 October) with Kelly Hunter as Mrs Alving (above). A co-production with English Touring Theatre (see link for tour dates until 7 December), this is Stephen Unwin’s final offering as artistic director of the Rose. All three productions have considerable strengths, but it’s striking that from a direct comparison across six days the starrily-cast small-screen adaptation (with Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Gambon, Natasha Richardson, Freddie Jones)  comes off least well.

All three productions, to a greater or lesser extent, respect the British tradition of Ibsen’s tragedies being played in recognisable versions of late nineteenth century domestic interiors, just as the playwright specified. All three also work, for much of their running time, with the dominant conventions of realism. Playing Ibsen ‘straight’ unquestionably has much to offer, especially when productions, as here, have fine casts and thoughtful, experienced directors.

Just occasionally, however, could we perhaps let, say, Benedict Andrews or Joe Hill-Gibbins lose on the Norwegian master, so that they might have a crack at him in the contemporary mode in the manner that, respectively, they have done with Chekhov and Three Sisters and Marlowe and Edward II.

On television, the house of Mrs Alving is realised as a setting of inter-connected rooms, whereas at both the Almeida and the Rose we are essentially confined to the living room. But designer Tim Hatley at the Almeida makes brilliant use of a layered set and semi-transparent walls, adding meaningful depth to the small playing area. By contrast, at the Rose, Simon Higlett has a wide and open space with which to work – and the ‘designs’ for the play that Edward Munch created for Max Reinhardt’s 1906 production in Berlin.

The most notable feature of Munch’s artwork, about which biographer Sue Prideaux writes in the Rose programme, is a large ‘window’ on the back wall, through which we see for most of the time the relentless rain outside. Then, in the closing minutes, it shifts to showing us the intense dawn to which Oswald is blind. At the Almeida, Hatley and lighting designer Peter Mumford create a richly beautiful but oblique effect that is exceptionally effective.

The visual arts are important to all three productions, with Moshinsky using the screen with a self-conscious sense of the work of Vilhelm Hammershoi as well as Munch. Hammershoi is name-checked in the Almeida programme as well, with Hatley saying:

The ability to convey atmosphere through composition, colour and light is wonderful in [the painter’s] work. Ibsen does the same thing with language. His plays are full of composition, colpur and light when you read them.

Although the Rose works with the direct visual ideas of Munch for this play, it is the Almeida that most closely approximates Reinhardt’s theatre where Munch’s visuals were first realised. The Rose’s stage has a generous openness that cannot get close to Reinhardt’s Kammerspiele, which Prideaux describes as

seat[ing] fewer than three hundred people. Its domestic scale and low ceiling immediately imparted an intimacy and intensity redolent of the psychiatrist’s couch.

This is a description that applies far more to the Almeida.

The three productions work with different texts, although each one plays without noticeably significant cuts. The translation by Ibsen biographer Michael Meyer for the BBC is slightly more archaic than those by Eyre and Unwin for their respective productions. Both work well, although perhaps Unwin’s demotic feels more appropriate more often. At the Almedia the play is played fast and without an interval, so that we are out after less than 100 minutes. This is also the case on television, where the play lasts 105 minutes.

At the Rose, Stephen Unwin does not push the pace quite as hard, and there are occasional pauses that are sufficiently lengthy to land with significance. There is also an interval between Acts 2 and 3, although I have to disagree strongly with Lyn Gardner for the Guardian that

It all goes grippingly until the misplaced interval, just 25 minutes from the end. Suddenly the spell is broken, and when we return for the final devastating act, the actors have a mountain to climb. Like the Alvings, the production never recovers.

As I observe in my Screen Plays post the presence of major actors in each of the five roles proves to be a distraction on television, especially since only Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh seem to move from being who they are as stars and get somehow inside their roles. Both the Almeida and the Rose have fine casts, although if I had to chose I think Kelly Hunter (at the Rose) has the edge; I preferred the tightly-coiled Will Keen as Pastor Manders (Almeida); Mark Quartley (Rose) is a less broad (and more effective) Osvald; Pip Donaghy (Rose) has a good deal of fun with Engstrand; and Charlene McKenna as Regina (Almeida) strikes exactly the right balance of deference and perkiness.

One perhaps unexpected outcome of seeing the play three times in so short a time is that it is revealed as stranger, more ambiguous and more mysterious than I might otherwise have thought. A host of questions still circle around Osvald’s inherited disease, about Pastor Manders’ past, and about what might become of Regina.

Then there is the question of the ending. And here I have to alert you to imminent SPOILERS, about the productions if not the play itself. In the text Mrs Alving’s final dilemma after Osvald is struck down is whether or not to give to him, as he has previously begged her to, a fatal dose of morphine pills. In the television version, whether or not she does so remains open.

At the Almedia I took Mrs Alving fetching a glass of water to mean that she was going to administer the pills, whereas at the Rose the character begins to push the pills down his throat but then scatters them desperately across the floor. Both endings are undeniably powerful, with Stephen Unwin’s being the more despairing.

It’s comparatively rare to have two truly fine productions of a non-Shakespeare classic playing at the same time. With the television version, these are three enriching experiences. If you’re in London, take your pick. Or, like me, grasp the opportunity that is unlikely to repeated for a long time of a hat-trick of Ghosts.

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