FringeReview UK 2023
Tom Hill-Gibbins emphasises the original’s shock in conversational prose-style too: incomplete sentences, interruptions sharpened to emphasise how jagged this play is. Stripped to a straight-through 100 minutes is hurtles like the Greek tragedy with reveals it essentially is.
It’s in final moments Hattie Morahan’s great cries explode hurtling the tragedy to its end. Without them one feels tragedy would be mere pathos. Here an agony of a pieta where Helene herself has to supply the cross for them both is sheared off to silence. It’s for that terrible freedom Hill-Gibbins’ production aims, and Morahan triumphs in the guttering dark.
Adaptor and Director Joe Hill-Gibbins, Set and Costume Design, Rosanna Vize, Costume Supervisor Megan Rarity.
Associate Director and Script Editor Lucy Wray, Literal Translator Charlotte Barslund, Globe Associate Movement Glynn Macdoanld, Intimacy Director Haruka Kuroda, Head of Voice Tess Dignan, Voice Coach Emma Woodvine. Casting Director Becky Paris.
Producer Tamsin Mehta, Production Manager Wills, Stage Supervisor, Faz Kemp, Stage Manager Rachel Middlemore, DSM Katherine Huddlestone, ASM Rona Radford.
Till January 27th
Rarely have the Wanamaker’s candles been used to such striking effect, and the space hasn’t been so haunted since the shivering, underrated Macbeth with Michelle Terry in 2018. This production is the first to match that, release what’s implicit in the ghostly grammar of the Wanamaker, a spectral potential
With Ibsen’s 1881 Ghosts adapted and directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, the 10th season of the Globe’s Wanamaker breaks its tradition of early modern or contemporary, with the first modern tragedy. One that broke with tradition altogether.
Clement Scott of the Telegraph is remembered if at all for his 1891 comments on Ghosts: “positively abominable…. a loathsome sore unbandaged… an open drain”. Others matched him. Even now we’re warned in a programme note: if not of the spurious effects of syphilis on the unborn – disproved but of no consequence here – then still of incest, euthanasia, references to suicide and scenes of smoking. That last mightn’t have bothered Scott. Add one, lose one.
Admittedly syphilis is now made explicit, single-sex couples in Paris and free love are things the returning son tempts the mother with, who’s reading an ‘advanced’ book.
Hill-Gibbins, working with literal translator Charlotte Barslund and script editor (and Assistant Director) Lucy Wray has emphasised the original’s shock in conversational prose-style too: incomplete sentences, interruptions sharpened to emphasise how jagged this play is. Stripped to a straight-through 100 minutes is hurtles like the Greek tragedy with reveals it essentially is. Unexpectedly though it’s funny, even when it shouldn’t be.
All this burns off in performance. Hattie Morahan, transcendently, Paul Hilton and Greg Hicks, both superb; with two intricately layered ones from actors playing the young doomed couple: Sarah Slimani, who graduated in 2022 but whose third Globe appearance this is, interspersed with one at the National. And Stuart Thompson’s crumbling mask of Parisian joie – as his admirer might put it.
Designer Rosanna Vize keeps costumes straight with 1881 hints but the upstage (with, awkwardly, no exits) is one large mirror, doubling candles and much-needed, often-obscuring light; but also doubling the audience into a huit-clos claustrophobia: as if in someone’s head. That’s emphasised in an initially welcoming deep shag of “cherry red velvet” (Ibsen’s directions) where characters lie down. It ultimately suggests the top lining of a softened brain. Scott would have been apoplectic.
The play moves in the murky dark the young returning painter Oswald (Stuart Thompson) complains he can’t paint in. It’s even occasionally difficult to see actors. But it’s absolutely right for this play: no Nordic bright sun. Lack of sun – and its snuffing – is the play’s final signature. Sharps of sound sheer like knives; the world of “there are ghosts right here now” is permeable and staking claims.
Candles are lit out of dark by Regine Engstrand (Sarah Slimani) who’s rough with her father Jacob (Greg Hicks) who thinks she can get a higher price for selling her body than another young woman who got 300 Kroner (a sum recurring emblematically). Regine though has far more warmth in Slimani’s performance for Oswald who later appears. But even with French phrases (we learn why) she remains withdrawn, mysterious in what turns out to be an ambiguous class and familial position.
Hicks in slithering Obadiah Heep mode as the poor lamed seaman is as memorable as any Dickens caricature; particularly in his working on Pastor Manders (Paul Hilton) who’s far more emmeshed in the Alving family than he wants to be. Knowing the earlier scene, Engstrand’s magnificent manipulation – gaslighting responsibility for a flicked match – becomes the only work of art produced in the Alving home. Engstrand might be Captain Alving’s avatar. Certainly ghosts throng as sexual groomers of the living. Hicks’ very leg becomes an act of coiled viciousness, a plea-bargain prop even when his daughter kicks him.
There’s physicality everywhere. Regine pushes her father violently, as she should. She also removes Manders’ boots and socks in a slow teasing manner he allows. She wants escape. Manders notes Regine has “developed”. There’s tenderness with Thompson’s Oswald. In this production it’s women who initiate physical contact – often with violence. Regine has reason to pour a bottle of champagne over her mistress Helene Alving.
Centring this widow Helene (Hattie Morahan) begins in agitated joy, coddling Oswald home. She’s not met him for years, sent him away at seven to avoid his father’s attentions (hints of abuse underscore Helene’s actions). It renders them near-strangers. Hence the frisson of Helene’s physicality – not so much cloying as reaching out. At one point she straddles Oswald who’s almost fitting. At another, she hurls herself at Pastor Manders.
But it’s vocally that Morahan reveals greatness. Her Helene Alving’s been anticipated, but she brings a surprise harrowing to each dark role.
Registers of persuasion, welcome, subservience as her old love for Manders makes her agree to his unhinged demand they don’t insure the orphanage (homage to Captain Alving) as an act of faith, and ensure people won’t talk. Helene even drops her ‘advanced’ book. Only later when her renewed attempts to embrace Manders are thwarted does she liberate herself, stand with her son’s advanced Parisian free love.
Hilton’s making Manders more physical with Helen – at one point they collapse on the floor in an embrace – goes some way to humanising him. And Hilton’s brilliant combination of cowardly desire and even more cowardly disavowal almost transfuses him; behind his dead carapace of hypocritical cant and status anxiety. No-one can quite fathom Helene’s continued spell under Manders. Perhaps isolation. Hill-Gibbins scores open such unspoken passions: what’s flayed from nuance gains in a scorch of clarity and intensity.
It’s true some things shrink, like the fire engulfing what’s essentially the last encumbrance of the past. Helene wants to commit all her drunken philandering and diseased husband’s money into a worthy cause and forget it. In the original, this catastrophe’s central. Hill-Gibbins has decided it isn’t. Helene wants to welcome life without encumbrances, and move on. But another inheritance from Captain Alving drags them back.
More problematic is the effect this has on Thompson’s arc of disintegration. Oswald arrives with his own mask of health. Like the superb Almeida revival of 2013 it’s important not to see an already sick son become sicker; a pretence then slips with onset. But here there’s barely time for Thompson to register a quizzical wryness and palpably secure Regine’s affections before he confesses what the doctor says and rather rapidly, like Bunbury, collapses in the telling. As if muted through the shag-pile, tragic energy drains off.
Oswald’s final collapse though triggers an extraordinary release in Morahan who’s terraced Helene’s ascent to tragedy with interrupted intimacies (twice about to reveal all) to confrontation. It’s in final moments her great cries explode hurtling the tragedy to its end. Without them one feels tragedy would be mere pathos. A mother beholds as man a son she’s not known since he was seven. Here an agony of a pieta where Helene herself has to supply the cross for them both is sheared off to silence. It’s for that terrible freedom Hill-Gibbins’ production aims, and Morahan triumphs in the guttering dark.