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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Duchess Theatre       Spring 2010

Iain Glen's new production of Ibsen's classic, in which he co-stars with Lesley Sharp, is as crisp and clear a staging as you are ever likely to see.

But its cool clarity might well make it less involving than you might wish, as you find yourself admiring the actors' technical choices and accomplishments more than believing in their characters.

At the core of Ibsen's play is not the case of inherited syphilis that so shocked original audiences, but the insight that truth is not easily got at, as inherited ways of thinking (one of several 'ghosts' in the play) limit our ability to see beyond our assumptions.

Like any thesis-driven play, Ghosts gave its author the problem of clothing its ideas in a believable and sympathetic human story.

So Ibsen imagined a woman whose late husband had a reputation for the greatest probity but who now feels free now to admit her secret, that he had actually been a drunken fornicator whose sins she covered up.

But events make her realise that this isn't the truth either, but that he had been a healthy and normal young man driven to hidden vices by a repressive small-town society that offered him no healthy outlets, and that she had played a part in that process.

Lesley Sharp invests Mrs. Alving with a strength and intensity that make it totally believable that she could have maintained the masquerade for years.

But that same quality makes it difficult for the actress to convey the woman's shock when she realises that her own version of reality was wrong, or her paralysis when she is later faced with further shocks.

Iain Glen is (despite an accent that wanders from Scotland to Ireland by way of Texas) the most nearly successful Pastor Manders I've ever seen.

He makes what is too often just a stuffy nonentity so completely a fire-and-brimstone preacher that he not only can't see past dogma but can't carry on a simple conversation without orating to an unseen congregation.

But while the character is thoroughly believable, he is also always seen from the outside, as we never get past the preacher's mask to glimpse the man inside.

The secondary roles show the same intelligent directorial andi nterpretative decisions. While Harry Treadway falls into the usual trap of making young Oswald a pitiable victim - decades ago Simon Russell Beale had the courage to acknowledge that a self-pitying invalid could be a pain in the neck - he does capture the lad's physical and emotional decline.

As the conniving Engstrand, Malcolm Storry does avoid a common trap by not figuratively twirling his moustachios in obvious villainy from the start, making him a much more plausible plotter. 

And Jessica Raine captures all the energy and life force - including its uglier aspects - in the housemaid Regine, showing how she could have been this family's salvation in a different reality.

So the pleasures of this production lie mainly in watching the actors at work, rather than in getting involved with their characters. But those pleasures are considerable.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Ghosts - Duchess Theatre 2010

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