Airing taboos of the past

Ghosts

Malvern Theatres

****

TIMES have changed hugely since Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen wrote this controversial play in 1881, tackling the then taboo subjects of sexual morality and venereal disease.

To have a story that revealed so frankly the torment of a wife trapped in a marriage to a philandering husband, the issue of children out of wedlock along with inherited syphilis and euthanasia was seen as unbelievably "filthy" and in bad taste for normal society.

With these issues hardly raising an eyebrow now, watching the play in current times has much less impact than when it was first staged, but it still offers a slice of Ibsen at his most dramatic.

And despite the strong cast, the real highlight of this version by the English Touring Theatre is the stage - based on artist Edvard Munch's set designs from a 1906 production of Ghosts.

Munch used drawings of his own childhood home as the basis for the set, but the real mark of the artist is the window view of a huge landscape that dominates the back of the stage. Through the play, the sun rises and sets between gigantic hills and is the most beautiful backdrop imaginable.

Translated and directed by Stephen Unwin from Ibsen's original text (which was in Danish), we follow Mrs Alving as she prepares to open an orphanage in memory of her dead husband with the local preacher, Pastor Manders .

The return of her artist son, Osvald, from Paris and his attentions towards the maid Regina prompt plenty of ghosts from the past and secrets to be revealed.

As usual with Ibsen, the emphasis is on relationships between characters - Regina and her crooked father Engstrand; Mrs Alving's history with the Pastor; Regina and Osvald; and Mrs Alving and her son. Among a talented outfit, actor Patrick Drury is particularly impressive as the misguided, pious pastor.

In a slight twist, this production portrays working class Engstrand and his servant daughter Regina as Scottish, while the other characters in the upper realms of society speak in cut glass English.

At times, the tempo of the play is a little slow, and another drawback is that the first half lasts 90 minutes, while the second half is over in 20 minutes.

But along with the Munch set and the strong cast, there is another reason to see this. When told that this play was no good, Ibsen once replied that "he had to write Ghosts". Like most controversial pieces of literature, it has an important place in theatre history for pushing boundaries and making public the unspeakable truths of society.  To 30-11-13

Alison Brinkworth 

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