Lesley Manville and Jack Lowden in Ghosts at Trafalgar Studios, photo: Tristram Kenton
Lesley Manville and Jack Lowden in Ghosts at Trafalgar Studios, photo: Tristram Kenton

The heartbreaking performances at the core of the Almeida’s production of Ghosts have created a production that pairs emotional suffering with intimate scrutiny. It is the only production in the current repertoire to have received a Critics’ Circle Theatre Award last week; Lesley Manville won the award for Best Actress for her role as Helene Alving. The show also recently announced it would be extending its transfer run at Trafalgar Studios until 22 March 2014.

Even as the audience took to its seats, arranged close together in the tight rows at Trafalgar Studios, the stage felt oppressively small and close to the audience. The set,  beautifully designed by Tim Hatley, is layered three spaces deep, divided by glass screen walls. A living room is exposed downstage, with the tarnished glass wall partially obscuring a dining room behind and another wall that looks beyond to the outside; to the village; to everywhere beyond this claustrophobic, private sphere. These semi-transparent walls allow the audience a perspective denied to the characters on stage. Even the furniture, which leaves little space to move about, is dark hardwood and made up with saturated olive green upholstery. Everything about the set is intense in the way it regulates the characters’ behaviour in the space. Significantly, the only props to move about repeatedly are the books that Helene Alving (Lesley Manville) has begun to conceive her own ideas by, the books that prompt the Adam Kotz’s hilarious but pitiful assertion as the Pastor that everything he says is what someone else has said first.

In Ghosts, Ibsen considers the legacy of the late Mr Alving’s debauchery, both on the ten years of isolation and suffering experienced by his wife, Helene, and in the inheritance of his son (Jack Lowden), who had held his father high in a position of esteem. The first performances were deemed obscene and revolting; today they continue to challenge. Richard Eyre’s modern adaptation has been almost unanimously praised and something profound happens to your conception of humanity, suffering and art, in relation to this play.

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