King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3
A quick blurb (cheekily copied from the website!): Helene Alving has spent her life suspended in an emotional void after the death of her cruel but outwardly charming husband. She is determined to escape the ghosts of her past by telling her son, Oswald, the truth about his father. But on his return from his life as a painter in France, Oswald reveals how he has already inherited the legacy of Alving’s dissolute life.
Ibsen‘s claustrophobic classic is performed in an uninterrupted 90 minute stretch; as the tension rises to fever pitch, and the characters get more and more distressed, the climactic ending leaves the audience in shock – one can only imagine how Manville deals with the aftermath every evening. The tears were still rolling down her cheeks and she could barely muster a smile as she bowed to the loud and heartfelt applause with the rest of the five-strong cast.
However, whilst naturally Helene is probably the most demanding part, going through such emotional turmoil as she does, the rest of the cast also have a lot of the play to bear on their shoulders. Jack Lowden as Oswald gives a very impressive performance of a son trying desperately to pretend to himself and others around him that all is well whilst concealing a soul-destroying secret. (A small, incredibly shallow, side note – my friend Megan and I were particularly dazzled by Lowden’s ability to pop champagne corks so smoothly he could have been a bartender. Now that is skill.) Charlene McKenna was likewise sincere and also comedically tragic in her role as Regina, the maidservant who is infatuated with Oswald, but who doesn’t know the darkness the lurks in her past and threatens her future happiness. Her ‘father’, Jacob (Brian McCardie) shows himself over the course of the play to be so much more Christian and kind than the pastor, Manders (Will Keen) who is just the most hypocritical, pathetic man there ever was.
The actors really show Ibsen’s unusual (at the time of writing) sympathy for women and the lower classes; like in ‘A Doll’s House (which you can see my review of here), the wealthy, powerful man is shown to be much weaker than the women who sacrifice their lives and happiness for them and get little, or nothing, in return. It is a play of thwarted human potential, in each and every character. As you can imagine, it is a play ahead of it’s time, dealing with feminism, sexual morals, arranged marriage, incest, sexual disease and, finally, euthanasia, as the play ends with Helene having to make one of the most agonising choices a person, and particularly a mother, could ever have to make. Not to give it away or anything. (Although, if anyone has already seen the play, I’d be interested to here what you thought she was going to do; would she have gone through with it? Personally I think yes, though others I’ve spoken to thought the exact opposite – probably something to do with age and experience.) The finale was one of the most spectacular things about the play; as the stage was flooded in violent, passionate reds and oranges, and Oswald’s pitying cries combined with his mother’s desperate sobbing.
The set was perfect, in my opinion – closed and claustrophobic, isolated and dark, with the rain hammering down outside, it’s easy to see why this sombre and depressing atmosphere would affect its residents. The audience are fully drawn into the enclosed world through this setting, and the expert and extraordinarily intensive acting which is only heightened by the close proximity of the audience to the action. The translucent wall behind the main part of the stage allowed us a view of what goes on behind closed doors and cleverly evoked the eponymous ghosts that haunt Helene. My only small problem was a tendency to melodrama, especially on Helene’s part, though this was more a fault with the script than the acting. And perhaps I’m just cold-hearted, unsympathetic and overly-critical…
Although, saying that, I’m still going to give this production maximum marks; tense, thoughtful, dramatic and superbly acted, it well deserves its West End-transfer. Go and see it if you possibly can.
Ghosts at Trafalgar Studios (Transfer from The Almeida) – 5/5 Stars