In the programme notes to his new production of Ghosts at the Almeida, Richard Eyre states that, in adapting the play, he was seeking to retain Ibsen’s intentions while keeping it spontaneous for a modern audience. It’s difficult to discern exactly what his adaptation consists of, as it plays very like any other recent translation. It runs for just ninety minutes without interval, so it’s safe to assume some pruning has gone on, although there’s nothing noticeably missing. His script makes some of the play’s underlying themes a little more overt than we’re used to – the placing of a hand on a corseted breast, a clear indication of assisted suicide, some more explicit language than we’re used to hearing in Ibsen – but, otherwise, it seems a pretty straightforward rendering.
And that’s maybe where it falls down. Apart from some lapses into histrionics at the end of the play, much of the acting is truthful, but while it moves swiftly and nothing jars, I can’t help feeling we need more from the classic these days. We’ve had safe, reliable productions of playwrights like Ibsen and Chekov for far too long and it’s the more adventurous explorations of these plays by directors such as Richard Jones and Benedict Andrews that have proved the most memorable.
Eyre and his designers (Tim Hatley set and Peter Mumford lights) opt for a recognisable late nineteenth century world, and it’s only transparent walls, allowing us to see something behind-the-scenes, that prevents it from being a fully traditional box set. All’s correct in the costume department too, so we could have been watching this at any time in the last few decades.
The playing is solid and well-observed. Lesley Manville has suffering etched on her features and is fascinating to watch at those moments early on when Pastor Manders talks in praise of her late husband and very different memories flit through her mind and across her face. Will Keen’s Manders is less the pompous representative of the establishment of tradition and more a man who has lost his essential self in pandering to society’s demands. His whole interpretation seems wrapped up in the moment that Mrs Alving laughs at his bewilderment and wants to fling her arms around him. But when needed, Keen has a crazy, disapproving stare for everyone for whom self-denial is not a personal credo.
The youngsters, who certainly fit into that category, are also excellently observed. Charlene McKenna is a delicately poised Regina, her French pretensions brought to the fore, as she seeks a way out of her servitude and, at his most interventionist, Eyre allows Jack Lowden’s Oswald full reign as the sudden decline into a catatonic state becomes an extended coda. His plaintive cries of “the sun” ebb away for some time, as Manville’s desperate mother rushes around in a near-hysterical state. The economy of Eyre’s “adaptation” up to this point is replaced with fanciful elaboration at the dying moments but it goes some way to overcome the difficulty of the play’s ending.