Ghosts (review). Fresh treatment for a disturbing Ibsen classic

Henrik Ibsen’s disturbing and controversial drama, Ghosts, is enjoying something of a revival. An off West End production has been critically acclaimed and two touring versions are currently winning new fans out in the regions.

Thursday, 21st November 2013, 8:00 am
Florence Hall, Kelly Hunter & Mark Quartley in Ghosts. Photo by Simon Annand.
Florence Hall, Kelly Hunter & Mark Quartley in Ghosts. Photo by Simon Annand.

English Touring Theatre’s powerful rendition of the tragedy opened on Tuesday at Watford Palace Theatre and it is a quality piece. Translated and directed by a self-confessed Ibsen nut, Stephen Unwin, his passion can be felt throughout. It could have been turgid in lesser hands.

Instead we have an utterly compelling drama about a family torn apart and ultimately destroyed by the past. You’re almost on the edge of your seat throughout – which can’t be said for a lot of Ibsen.

Helen Alving has spent 29 years haunted by the behaviour and legacy of her husband. Outwardly he appeared to the community as an upstanding and moral man but behind closed doors he appears to have chased anything with a pulse.

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Kelly Hunter in Ghosts.

Even after his death she seemed still trapped in a kind of purgatory dictated by the narrow-minded conventions of the village priest (Patrick Drury) who demanded duty from her rather than happiness.

The only way she can exorcise the dark memories of a life wasted is to cut the umbilical cord to her past. She spends every penny of her husband’s cash and is determined that her bohemian artist son should not inherit anything from his father.

Sadly, it’s too late. The sins of the father have already left their mark.

It’s very melodramatic and extremely radical for its time, featuring themes of possible incest, adultery, euthanasia and debauchery (a wonderful, and frequently used, word in the play).

Kelly Hunter’s breathy and staccato delivery of her lines as the wronged widow had you wondering if her stays were too tight but each word was spat out in a cocktail of bile, resentment and anger. She’s a woman seething with pent-up emotion who, ultimately, can’t control herself any longer.

Helen has an uneasy and distant relationship with her son Osvald (Mark Quartley) and it takes a personal tragedy to bring the two together (ooh, perhaps a little bit too together by the way he caresses her).

Another uneasy pairing and familial rift occurs “downstairs” between village scoundrel Engstrand (played by the ever reliable and wonderful character actor Pip Donaghy - sounding very Billy Connolly) and the girl he’s raised as a daughter, the housemaid Regina (Florence Hall).

The story is beautifully presented against a gloomy rain-sodden background and set in a rural 19th century drawing room, complete with a grandfather clock. As someone who can’t stand hearing clocks tick this infernal item of stage dressing drove me to distraction. There were times when the incessantly loud tick seemed to dominate a scene. (even Hunter’s dialogue seemed to fall in to its rhythm!)

Gripe aside Ghosts is an absorbing a piece of period drama that enthrals from beginning to end. Running until Saturday.

For tickets call the box office 01923 225671 or visit www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.ukFollow me @LBOanne