Penny Downie as Helen Alving with James Wilby as Pastor Manders. Pictures: Sheila Burnett


Royal & Derngate Northampton


Gloom, pessimism, claustrophobia, denial, recanting, admonishing, defamation, blame, loneliness, grim upbraiding, ignorance, consciousness, guilt and self-loathing: often these are the disheartening focus of Ibsen’s stageworks.   

Add in others: repression, concealment, dullness, bitterness, depression, Angst in swathes; and as if merely to worsen the situation, moral coercion, religious smugness, pontificating  disapprobation and reproval, blame, scorn, stigmatising.

Arguably these are the ingredients of others: Arthur Miller, O’Casey, Ibsen’s fellow Scandinavian Strindberg, Chekhov, Wedekind.

But arguably none (Chekhov, after all, deploys initial optimism and humour; Miller a brash confidence that offsets his hapless denouements) quite matches the grim tensions of Ibsen, not least his play Ghosts, staged here in Northampton’s always intimate Royal Theatre, in a new version by the incredibly gifted Mike Poulton (the RSC’s two-part Imperium, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Schiller’s Wallenstein and a string of major versions or translations for – eg. - the Chichester Festival Theatre). 

There are no ghosts in Ghosts (his 18th play) – only shades of the past, echoes, unforgettable grim happenings, which threaten to implode on the (just) five members of the cast. Perhaps there could be more parts. Director Lucy Bailey helps this slightly by bringing on, rearstage, a pair of comfortable maids who give some welcome sense of normality to this emotional (and spiritual) battleground.

The set actually devises an ongoing context: what seems like an incessant down-pouring of rain ‘It has been raining for weeks, and shows little sign of easing up’ reminds us, we are in dull, mind-numbing Norway (around Bergen), and its ‘gloomy fjord landscape’: something the returnee son, Osvald Alving (Pierro Nel-Mee) has escaped from: to a sun-kissed southern landscape where there is freedom – to practise his successful painting, to revel in the sunlight, to embrace every imaginable freedom (though not ‘starving in garrets’ or ‘living among degenerates’) – which includes the sexual liberty northern families, and especially his own, struggle to suppress, and not admit to. Yet therein lies all the pain.

 mother and son

 Helen with Eleanor McLoughlin as Regina Engstrand, (really Alving) and Pierro Niel-Mee as Osvald Alving  in the background

Not just the rain, with its ‘deadening, decaying effect’ – as if an era is struggling to its miserable end - but the very colour of the set by Mike Britton (an incredible credits list – and collection of successes, including The Crucible, Three Sisters and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) captures that crucial darkened, claustrophobic feel of the Alvings’ now underpeopled, boorish manor house. He uses a kind of gloomy green, not so much bottle green as absinthe green: you can see it in many Danish and Scandinavian paintings of the turn of last century. It goes perfectly with the relentless rain.

But he also devises a curious labyrinth, by which all the curtains are transparent and characters making their way to the back have to weave their way through: is this in a sense a labyrinth of the mind, with which each character must sidle in search of some kind of a solution? Or which at least suggests their maiming inner tensions?

The play, which its initial 1880s audience derided and felt morally unacceptable (which is of course the whole point of Ibsen’s then deliberately provocative work) is essentially about one thing: adultery, and its consequence: in the birth of a daughter whose origins cannot be declared, even to the girl and her half-brother, to both of whom the mother, ripped apart by a guilt which is not hers but by the terrible tension of concealment, finally feels forced to own up to at the end of the play.

The girl, Regina, has been taken on as a maid in the big house, and there, ironically, feels at home. Eleanor McLoughlin is a relative newcomer to the professional stage. The first scene, a typical introduction read-in where she converses with the very bluff, ordinary type, Jakob Engstrand - Declan Conlon, very Irish and somehow aptly so - who has adopted her (‘I thought it was my duty to help her’) as if his own, with a generosity special to the working or at least artisan class.

McLoughlin’s range of gesture, somewhat fidgety and flighty, didn’t always feel right: a little too manufactured. Yet if we remember she is a teenager, uncertain of herself, to whom everything (especially in a repressed society) is new, perhaps she too gave Regina the right feel. Immediately after she relaxed, interestingly, with the Pastor. As the central issue, Regina appears too little in the play: a drawback in the Ibsen, arguably.

One big draw in this latest in-house (‘Made in Northampton’, a consistently superb series) is James Wilby, star of many an unforgettable screen role, who takes on the role of Pastor Manders. Ibsen depends often on a cleric to pound home the prim and proper religious strictures, the pious, holier-than-thou, interfering deity-peddler (urging the wrong people ‘not to slide back into vice’) whose rigorous insistence on bible bashing and born again, know-it-all type whose constant intrusiveness - albeit as a ubiquitous friend - prevents Helen Alving (Penny Downie), the cheated-on mother (‘Love played no part in my,marriage’;... the only things restraining him – her husband – ‘was a lack of opportunity.’) from being able even to contemplate spilling the beans. Imagine the weekly hammering she receives in church Imagine the pile-up of guilt. 

mother and son

Mother and son,  Helen and Osvald as the play reaches its intense climax

Wilby pulled off the pastor typically skilfully. And springs some on-the-nub surprises (‘The last thing we need to know here is the truth’… and, rather endearingly, ‘I’m way out of my depth’). Somewhat gauche, a sort of stumbly figure, sometimes bent, with an occasional stutter (at which he excels) and an amiable capacity for misunderstanding things ‘You know what children are like… you don’t, really’, and a quick response to every one of others’ utterances but breathtaking dearth of intuition. He has a gift – more than the others- for looking in different directions, almost lurching into his next gauche observation, reaching out for the next absurdity. 

But it was the final scenes, after the explosive burning down of the orphanage Helen has built as a memorial to her husband, and is only too happy for it to be destroyed (wilfully uninsured), that really lifted this production to its top level.

First Helen’s soliloquy, which is a masterpiece of writing (pouring out her sufferings – earlier summed up as ‘All my energies went into keeping the secret…’) and in Downie’s hands, ‘her struggle to free herself from layers and layers of lies’, as the Director points out, as she aims ‘to find out about herself’ is indeed beautifully acted. It emerged as an unbelievably intense, and somehow redeeming unfolding. That alone would have been sufficient to end the play on a staggering high note.

But somehow one senses the need for completion, and that indeed Ibsen supplies, by delivering the most dazzling, intense and telling, exchange between mother and son. First Osvald (Niel-Mee) has a spectacular, indeed explosive, soliloquy, in its way as powerful as hers, and rendering these two the most vivid members of the cast.

Then Helen: ‘You’re not like your father, you’re like me, everybody says so’), as he doses himself with morphine, all of which he feels ‘is rotting me’ ‘A home? I’d be better off in an institution’:  sickness, disease, corruption are a key element of his vocabulary - and assuming himself fatally ill (here, as he folds in his mother’s arms, he looks to have succumbed) - but who can at last share a host of truths with his forlorn mother. 

The emergence of the sun, at last, at rear right, bathed the stage in unexpected splendour; a little bland, but blazing enough (‘an artist needs the sun’). However, the most visually dramatic lighting effect (Oliver Fenwick) was the outburst of fire, and its growth into an inferno. If Osvald was looking for a blazing sunlight, he could have scarcely found a more liberating outburst than this. To 11-05-19.

Roderic Dunnett


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