fri 21/06/2024

Ghosts, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse review - a claustrophobic descent into purgatory | reviews, news & interviews

Ghosts, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse review - a claustrophobic descent into purgatory

Ghosts, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse review - a claustrophobic descent into purgatory

Hattie Morahan returns to Ibsen, for another round of unhappy families

'Am I alive?' Hattie Morahan, in 'Ghosts'Marc Brenner

Henrik Ibsen may well have wanted to shake things up, to rile against the social mores of his time. But his visionary critiques didn’t usually come with anything as radical as, say, optimism. And there’s no more of a downer than Ghosts.

Directing his own adaptation, Joe Hill-Gibbins offers an intense night of the soul, which feels horribly contemporary in its depiction of characters suffocating in the fear of gossip, tarnished reputation and shame. Lest that appears too depressing, he’s aided by an excellent cast in nimbly navigating between despair and the kind of amusement that flows from people as awful as these. 

In a night replete with ghosts – whether the legacy of a long-dead monster, or familial secrets and lies, or what one character derides as “dead beliefs, dead ideas” – the production has its own ghost to contend with: Richard Eyre’s lauded 2013 version at the Almeida, hailed by The New York Times as “perhaps the best Ghosts you’ll ever see.” It’s a high bar that this doesn’t reach; though it’s certainly a potent, often luxuriously malign kick in the teeth. 

It’s been said that Helene Alving is what Nora would have become if she had not escaped her hellish marriage in A Dolls House; it seems fitting, then, and a little brave, that Hattie Morahan returns to Ibsen for the first time since her impressive Nora at the Young Vic in 2012. Helene is a day away from finally escaping the shadow of her alcoholic and cheating late husband, whose errant ways she concealed from the community for years, for the sake of their joint reputation. With the completion of an orphanage in his name, she plans to seal the captain’s legacy as a great benefactor and move on with her life. Her son Osvald (Stuart Thompson, pictured above with Morahan), who she sent away as a boy to escape his father, has just returned home from his artistic pursuits in Paris: she hopes to embrace both him and the new ideas about society and community that he brings with him. 

But those ghosts won’t go away lightly: her husband’s true legacy lies not in the new building but in Osvald’s syphilis; Helene’s enabling and concealments continue to have damaging repercussions for all of them; and she’s constantly encumbered by the loathsome presence of her apparent friend and pastor, Father Manders (Paul Hilton), a sanctimonious buffoon whose constant, self-serving ill-advice includes the new brainwave not to insure the orphanage.

Everyone who gathers in her isolated house this wintry evening wants something: Helene’s maid Regine (Sarah Slimani) dreams of a rich man to take her back to the town; Regine’s father, the boozy builder Engstrand (Greg Hicks), wants the pastor to support his plans for an erroneously named ‘hostel’ for sailors, and his daughter to whore for him there; Manders primarily wants to ensure that everyone keeps his own image nice and shiny, though he has his eye on all the woman around him (Hilton pictured below, with Morahan); poor, conflicted Osvald has fallen for Regine, not knowing that she is, in fact, his half-sister.Helene must navigate all these needs and petty corruptions, as well as the consequences of her cover-ups, one of which is playing out as incest before her. Morahan introduces the character as slinky, glamorous, confident, a woman on the verge of independence; but as her plans unravel, her repeated assertions that “I will speak” are not powerful, but desperate; by the time the night is over she’s close to madness. It’s a nicely delineated descent, whose final howl sends shivers down the spine. 

The pastor most embodies everything Ibsen will have hated about his society, and Hilton nails this slimy man, at once pathetic and destructive, with his corroding conformity to “older truths”. Hicks is baseness personified, a venal conniver who uses his gammy leg like a rhetorical weapon; Slimani excels when Regine’s angry dignity finally combusts. Thompson slightly jars though: kitted out in ill-fitting shorts and leopard print top, he plays Osvald like an overgrown child rather than a bohemian artist.

A tale of marital misery, disease, incest, secrets and lies is bread and butter for the candlelit, claustrophobic environs of the Sam Wanamaker. While the space’s natural ambiance casts an appropriate shadow and gloom over proceedings, designer Rosana Vize has lined one wall with mirrors, which reflect the sins back onto the sinners, and underline the implication that Helene and those around here are, as one puts it, “living ghosts”. In one telling moment, Helene and Manders look into the mirror and see the two youngsters kissing behind them – an echo of another master and another servant. 

But the space has its drawbacks here. It feels too enclosed. When characters complain that “it’s too dark in here”, they’re not wrong. Ghosts benefits from a feeling for the house and its history; and we miss the sense of nature outside, to which they constantly refer, the rain lashing at the doors and, in a way, trapping these people and their woes inside. 

The pay-off is the purgatorial intensity, for characters who are genuinely living on a loop of repeated mistakes and the ineluctable harm of what is, both literally and metaphorically, bad blood. 

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