Nik Arkham – Stantonbury Theatre
Over the years I've been lucky enough to see 'Ghosts' performed on stages in London more than once. It's widely accepted that city theatres are the platform for the best and brightest theatre experiences in the collective consciousness - but it's not necessarily true, of course.Speaking the truth and the consequences of it are an explicit theme in Henrik Ibsen's 'Ghosts' performed 'The Play's The Thing' Theatre Company this week. Proving that some traditions and 'truths' are simply ghosts of a bygone time, the production exorcises the notion that you can't have great theatre at Stantonbury Theatre in Milton Keynes. In fact, the theatre company continues its run of plays (the superb 'Austerity' and 'Trailer/trash' by Mike Elliston) which prove that local theatre is thriving and fearless when it comes to voicing the issues of the age.
And masterful director Ian Spiby conducts the performance so that the themes blossom naturally - they are not just present in this production; they subtlety pervade it, reaching a visceral climax which is as powerful as it is detailed. Mr. Spiby co-ordinates the action so that it exploits the one, beautiful set fully; actors move in it, around it and through it creating depth and richness to dialogue and a sense of the outside world just beyond the stage.
A moment to reflect the on the set; as before -Kevin Jenkins has designed a space which is functional, artistic and intelligent. The grandeur of the Alving estate is clear, but with missing glass and disjointed struts, the house is literally 'broken' like the lives played out within. The darkness around the set allows for the gloom referenced by Oswald to be well-realised whilst adding to the claustrophobia of Helene's 'prison,' trapped as she is in a sham marriage, her duties and her misery.
The darkness serves the staging well but the light does also, with the orphanage blaze, Oswald's craved sunlight and the effects of the lamp expertly realised - also true of sound and costume.
There's never a mis-step with the casting either; each actor creating their role in Richard Eyre's version with true sensitivity to the humanity of the character as well as the wider social commentary they provide. It's a truly magnetic cast. From the quieter beats of thought and duty, through passionate rhythms of speech to the trauma of the play's final moments, the performers command credibility and skill. They are as adept at creating the lovely touches of humour in the pieces as they are the outrage and despair.
It's a joy to watch Pastor Manders and Mrs. Alving locked in their tense spin, attracted but fundamentally opposite; Charlie Buckland and Caroline Mann create this powerfully, imbuing the roles with a sense of history and sadness and growing disparity. But there's no escaping the dominance of the patriarchal Victorian at first, with Buckland's Manders talking over the end of Helene's sentences and bullying her with the past.
Caroline Mann initially plays Mrs. Alving with perfect understatement and restraint, giving a sense of the corseting and confinement of women in the age. As the play progresses, Mrs. Alving is allowed to develop beautifully as she emerges initially through barbed comments and realisations about society's 'ghosts' until self-assuredness arrives (albeit too late.) At all times there is the sense that, despite the decorum of her exterior, there is fierce intelligence and struggle taking place beneath - a superb portrayal. Similarly, the Pastor's fall from piety and moral outrage to disowned hypocrite is wonderfully conveyed by Mr. Buckland. In the brief, quiet moment as Manders decides to 'buy' his innocence from Engstrand (also a fine performance) there is an almost tangible 'snap' as the last of Manders' integrity falls away.
And the final, gruelling scene - a true challenge as it exposes the raw horror of a mother's anguish and dilemma and the ravages of disease on Oswald - was every bit as affecting as Ibsen can have intended, with direction and performance at its memorable best. Congratulations to Ian Spiby, Caroline Mann and Richard Conrad for creating a scene which absolutely exemplifies the power of theatre on its audience.
In a time far-removed from Ibsen's, this perceptive and memorable production of 'Ghosts' still resonates with today's audiences on many levels - the whitewashed inequality of women and the cross-generational impact of STDs... but more than ever, it is an uncomfortable reminder that people still hang on to the 'ghosts' they believe are the foundations of society while they marginalise others; it is a cautionary tale of the consequences of lying to yourself in order to support the greater lie.
If you like good theatre you'll love 'Ghosts:' it is outstanding theatre. Last chance tonight!
Ghosts – Theatre Review
Carly Halse – Female Arts
When first published ‘Ghosts’ by Henrik Ibsen was described as "An open drain, a loathsome sore un-bandaged, a dirty act done publically... Crapulous stuff." Like many of Ibsen’s now popular plays it provides a scathing look at Victorian morality, whilst also delving into subject matter as challenging as religion, venereal disease, incest and euthanasia to name a few. The play perhaps has lost some of its bite over the years, but this translation from Richard Eyre gives a welcome fresh take on the text. And with the talented Ian Spiby on directing duty here, The Play’s The Thing once again manage to produce a production that finds the light and shade in the material.
The story follows Helene Alving (Caroline Mann), a middle aged woman haunted by the ghosts of her philandering, yet outwardly respectable husband. Determined to rid herself of his memory, she intends to tell her son Oswald (Richard Conrad) the truth about his cruel father. That is until Oswald reveals he has already inherited the terrible outcome of his father’s wayward life. “The sins of the father are visited on their children” after all. Mann gives us a solid and measured Helene, until the dam finally bursts in Act Three revealing a force of raw emotion that is impressive to watch. Conrad provides a layered Oswald, an exciting mess of the modernist, the libertine and the nihilist and it’s fun to watch the gears tick here. His descent into illness is carefully considered and realised.
Rounding out the cast is the talented Charlie Buckland as Pastor Manders, who gives an incredibly watchable performance as the pious pontificator, Katy Withers as Regina Engstrand, who slips easily from coquettish flirt to incensed fury, and Colin Jeffrey as Jacob Engstrand, who gives a highly amusing performance. A delightfully slimy and manipulative Engstrand, Jeffrey also hints at something far more violent and dangerous in his character too. It’s clear the cast are having lots of fun under the drama here and as such it brings a pacey energy to the piece. Spiby has worked hard to keep the action fluid, despite the majority of the plot taking place in one room. Furthermore, the idea of Helene being trapped and suffocated in this house of terrible memories comes through nicely.
As always, the set and costume from designer Kevin Jenkins are simply astonishing. The detail is something else, from Engstrand’s weathered leather coat, to the rusting and water stained architecture of the Alving house, to the plump velvet cushions Oswald hugs to his chest. The care and attention to it all is just wonderful, and Jenkins provides an appropriate playground for the festering sores of the story to open on. The very house itself seems to be suffering under the weight of Captain Alving’s sins, rotting away to nothing. Wonderful work from talented lighting designer James Tearle too. In particular his creation of a mournful, misty morning outdoors in Act One is incredibly effective and the flickering, dangerous fire which closes Act Two provides an exciting contrast to the prior dreariness.
Another top notch piece from The Play’s The Thing, who continue to maintain a high set of standards for their productions. Definitely one to catch whilst you can.
Verdict - ★★★★