Posts Tagged ‘Rose theatre Kingston’

“The air is thick with ghosts…”

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, translated and directed by Stephen Unwin, at Rose Theatre, Kingston.

Please note that the run at Rose Theatre Kingston has now finished, but this production will be touring with the English Touring Theatre. See here for venues and dates.


“The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
–        William Faulkner, from Requiem for a Nun

“The past is the present, isn’t it? And it’s the future too.”
–       Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night, by Eugene O’Neill

The “exposition” is traditionally that part of the play in which the audience is provided with the background information that is required to follow the action. Usually, this required information deals with events of the past, and is generally imparted as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible, so as not to hold up the main action of the drama. But there is a certain type of play in which the past is itself the essence of the drama – where the “main action of the drama” is the process of understanding, and of coming to terms with (or, more frequently, of not being able to come to terms with) the events of the past. In these instances, the entire play becomes, in effect, one long exposition. Such plays aren’t new: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is a prime example. And these plays continued into the twentieth century – Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for instance. But perhaps no other dramatist more insistently explored the impact of the past on the present than did Henrik Ibsen: Rosmersholm, The Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman, and, in particular, Ghosts, all see the present as something that has been shaped by the past, as something in which the ghosts of the past continue to haunt, and from which they cannot be banished. There is no escaping these ghosts, much though we may long to. “The air is thick with ghosts,” says Mrs Alving early in the play, possibly not realising at the time the terrible implications of this.

This focus on the past from which there is no escape gives these plays a sense of constriction, of being trapped in a machine that cannot be anything other than infernal. The scene here is the middle-class drawing room that certain later critics and playwrights have seen fit to mock as “bourgeois”; but  the contents of this particular “bourgeois drama” did more to  “épater la bourgeoisie” than just about any other play one can think of. It’s not just the mechanisms of the plot – inherited syphillis, proposed incest, possible euthanasia – that were shocking: the very basis of the audience’s moral compass was subjected to an unremitting assault. Nowadays, of course, we aren’t so rigid – at least in the Western world – about moral codes of behaviour: we are far more likely now to laugh at the conventional morality of Pastor Manders, or, indeed, to see him as a caricature, than to nod away in agreement; but nonetheless, as this production amply demonstrated, this play’s ability to shock remains undimmed. And it is still there because, I think, it is only superficially about the inadequacy in our lives of conventional morality: considered at a deeper level, this play is about the ghosts that continue to haunt us – that terrible burden of the past from which none of us can ultimately free ourselves, and only in the context of which can we come to any self-understanding.

The past emerges in fragments as the play progresses. First, Pastor Manders tells us of the time when Mrs Alving, then a young wife, had left her husband and had sought refuge with him. He had wrestled with his own desires (although he does not, can not, tell us this), and had persuaded Mrs Alving back to the path of duty: he had persuaded her to returning to her husband to whom she has been united by God. This is a world in which duty is all-important; there is no room here for joy:

To pursue happiness in this world is to be governed by the spirit of rebellion. What right do we have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, Mrs Alving. And your duty was to cleave to the man you’d chosen and to whom you were tied by a sacred bond.

Her husband, Captain Alving, is now dead. And an orphanage, named after him, and financed by the wealth he had bequeathed, is soon to open. But this version of the past, of Captain Alving as a good and respectable man, is a lie, and Mrs Alving is now capable of telling Pastor Manders the truth: Captain Alving had not stopped being a dissipated man, and their marriage was an empty and a desperately unhappy sham. She had sent away her son, Osvald, at an early age, not as a dereliction of duty, but to prevent him associating with his debauched father; she had not wanted him to inherit anything of his (has ever a dramatic irony been so devastating?) With the money spent on the orphanage, the association with Captain Alving is now, Mrs Alving believes, finished: a line can now be drawn under it, and life can start afresh.

In the play The Father, Strindberg, objecting to what he regarded as feminism on Ibsen’s part, has his principal character say sarcastically that, some day, he would like to hear Captain Alving’s side of the story. Ibsen, however, had been ahead of the game on this score. Of course, since this is a realistic drama (at least on the surface), Ibsen could not bring back, Rashomon-like, the ghost of Captain Alving to give his own perspective; but the ghost is there all the same, and, towards the end of the play, before the final catastrophe, in an extraordinary moment of revelation, Mrs Alving begins to see a picture wider than the one that has so embittered her:

MRS ALVING:  … You were talking earlier about joy in life, and what you said shed light on everything in my life.

OSVALD (shaking his head): I don’t understand.

MRS ALVING: You should have known your father when he was young. He was full of joy in life, I can tell you.

OSVALD: Yes, I know.

MRS ALVING: It made me feel like Sunday weather just looking at him, full of such tremendous life and energy.

OSVALD: So what happened?

MRS ALVING: Well, this boy – so full of joy in life – he was just a boy back then – well, he  had to live in a small town with no joy, just diversions. He had to live a pointless life out here, as a government official. He had no real work, just routine. And not a single friend who could appreciate joy in life; just layabouts and drunks…

OSVALD: Mother…

MRS ALVING: And so the inevitable happened.

OSVALD: What inevitable?

MRS ALVING: You said earlier what you’d turn into if you stayed at home.

OSVALD: You mean that father – ?

MRS ALVING: Your poor father never found an outlet for that great joy in life inside him. And I didn’t bring much either.

OSVALD: You didn’t?

MRS ALVING: I’d been taught duty, and all the things I believed in so long. Everything came down to duty – my duty, his duty and – I’m afraid I made your poor father’s home unbearable, Osvald.

–       Translated by Stephen Unwin

[Incidentally, I’m pleased to see Stephen Unwin retain “Sunday weather”, which, I presume, is in the original. Other translators I have consulted replace it with something more idiomatically English, and I can see why; but “Sunday weather” has a good sound to it. Some other alternative are: “It was like a sunny morning just to see him” (Michael Meyer); “It was like a holiday weather just to look at him” (Rolf Fjelde); while Peter Watts avoids the expression altogether with “He was so full of vitality and boundless energy that it did your heart good just to see him”.]

Mrs Alving comes to recognise here her own part in this immense tragedy: she too now realises the terrible toll taken on the human spirit when the claims of joy are not acknowledged, and the very right to pursue happiness denied (“What right do we have to happiness?”)

The truth is arrived at slowly, and its final, terrible manifestation comes as the sun finally breaks through the gloom. And the truth, as so often in Ibsen, brings no relief. The truth is something that much exercised Ibsen’s imagination: in his very next play, An Enemy of the People, written, possibly, as a response to the virulent criticism Ghosts had received, Ibsen proclaims loudly the importance of acknowledging the truth; but even while proclaiming this, awkward questions remain unanswered, and in his subsequent plays, Ibsen addresses these questions. In The Wild Duck, he ponders on those truths that we cannot live with; and in Rosmersholm, he examines the elusive nature of truth itself, and the uncertainty of our perceptions. Here, in Ghosts, the truth is brutal, and inescapable. All attempts to deny the past, to draw a line under it, are doomed to fail: the ghosts of the past cannot be laid so easily. The name of Captain Alving was intended to grace an orphanage, but this attempt to deny the truth about the past goes up, quite literally, in flames; his name ends up gracing, more appropriately, a “sailors’ home” – videlicet, a brothel. The truth is indeed a terrible thing, and when the sun finally breaks through in the final scene, it reveals a scene of devastation, and of utmost terror.

We may no longer object to this play on moral grounds, as past generations have done; our moral perceptions have certainly changed since 1882, when this play was first performed to predictably outraged critical response. But in a world that, like the town in which Captain Alving lived, appears not to believe in joy, and sees mere diversion as an adequate substitute, this unblinking stare into the truth of our condition retains its terrifying power.


I have seen this play twice on television (once with Dorothy Tutin as Mrs Alving, and another production with Judi Dench), but this is the first time I have seen it on stage. It certainly makes a difference. The atmospheric sets, designed by Simon Higglett, are based on the designs made by Edvard Much for a 1906 production directed by Max Reinhardt, and they enhance superbly the claustrophobic horror of the work. Stephen Unwin’s direction presents the work with his customary clarity, respecting the integrity of Ibsen’s text without sacrificing anything in the way of dramatic immediacy. And the performances I cannot imagine being bettered. It is important, for instance, not to present Pastor Manders as a caricature, as he could so easily become: he is a hypocrite, yes, but by no means a conscious hypocrite; and Mrs Alving, on stage through virtually the entire play and having to sustain its terrifying intensity, must surely be among the most demanding of all stage roles: Patrick Drury and Kelly Hunter, respectively, play these very difficult parts superbly. And the smaller parts – smaller only in terms of the number of lines spoken rather than in terms of their importance to the drama – are expertly taken by Mark Quartley, Florence Hall, and by Pip Donaghy. In short, if this play tours to anywhere near where you live, and you do not object to an evening of nerve-jangling drama that is as far from traditional “feelgood” as may be imagined, then this production is most strongly recommended. It inspires terror, yes, but perhaps we need to experience such terror from time to time. I left the theatre shaken, even though I knew what to expect. But yes, for whatever perverse reason, I would gladly experience this all over again.

“The Lady from the Sea”: a rich, rare Ibsen

19th century work about a married woman? File under “Trapped Inside a Marriage”. Emma Bovary, Hedda Gabler, Isabel Archer, Anna Karenina, Dorothea Brooke, Lady Dedlock … They’re all much of a muchness, aren’t they? “Trapped inside a marriage” – that’s what 19th century writers did awfully well.

And if it’s Ibsen, they’re definitely trapped inside marriage! In fact, you don’t even need to read or to see the play. Ibsen, after all, was a past master at this Trapped-Inside-a-Marriage malarkey: if it’s “Trapped Inside a Marriage” you want, then Ibsen’s your man!


The Lady From the Sea is among Ibsen’s finest works, written at a time in his career when he seemed incapable of writing anything other than masterpieces. It features at its centre one of the finest and most demanding roles ever written for an actress. And yet, while actresses queue up to play Nora in A Doll’s House, or the title role in Hedda Gabler, The Lady From the Sea is comparatively little-known, and rarely performed. I have been, for several years now, trying to catch on stage as many Ibsen plays as I can, but I only caught up with The Lady From the Sea on stage a couple of weeks ago – in a quite excellent production at the Rose Theatre in Kingston-on-Thames, with Joely Richardson in the central role, and superbly directed with characteristic clarity by Stephen Unwin.

It is hard to understand the reason for this neglect. As Unwin’s production demonstrated, it can hold the stage triumphantly. But, although Ellida Wangel is among the finest of all Ibsen roles, this is, essentially, an ensemble piece, with at least half dozen or so characters holding the stage equally: this is unusual for Ibsen – especially late Ibsen, in which the spotlight usually falls with a disconcerting intensity on only two or three characters at the most – and brings it in many ways closer to Chekhovian drama: but the themes, and the haunting poetic imagery, are unmistakably Ibsenite.

To get the obvious out of the way, Ellida Wangel is, indeed, trapped inside a marriage. But she is very different either from Nora (in A Doll’s House), who had preceded her by about nine years; or from Hedda, who was to follow immediately afterwards. Nora is an intelligent woman who plays the role of a helpless scatterbrain utterly dependent upon her husband because this is the role that is expected of her: she wears the mask that her particular social environment has created for her, but is intelligent enough to arrive at the realisation that the mask doesn’t fit. Hedda, on the other hand, is self-lacerating from the very start; she is also intelligent, but her intelligence merely serves to increase her disgust with herself: she has walked into her soul-destroying marriage with her eyes fully open, almost, one suspects, to punish herself. Ellida is quite different from either Nora or Hedda: she is a woman who remains, for reasons she herself cannot herself quite fathom, alienated from her kindly husband, and from her step-daughters, and longs for a freedom that she knows she has never had.

The respective husbands of these three ladies are also very different from each other. Nora’s husband, Torvald, is a self-deluding egotist, who, like his wife, is also wearing a mask that refuses to fit; Hedda’s husband is merely a nincompoop. But Ellida’s husband, though ageing, is a kindly, decent man. These ladies may all be trapped within their marriages, but  the marriages are all, nonetheless, very different from each other; and the ladies themselves are very different from each other. And, not surprisingly, these three marriages are resolved in very different ways. Nora famously walks out on her husband, but despite the apparent decisiveness of her action, she remains curiously uncertain: she is uncertain as to who she really is beneath her mask, and is determined to discover for herself; Hedda’s energies, on the other hand, become merely destructive, and turn in upon herself in one of Ibsen’s bleakest endings. But in The Lady From the Sea, against all expectations, the ending is joyous and radiant, as sunlight floods the stage. If only those who characterise Ibsen merely as a doom-and-gloom merchant would read or see this play: it is one of the most startlingly moving finales in all drama.

Ellida Wangel herself, the eponymous Lady From the Sea, I can’t help seeing as a sort of corollary to Isabel Archer: in A Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer finds herself having the luxury to choose, but the choice she makes is disastrous; nonetheless, because the choice has been made freely, she faces up heroically to its consequences. Ellida Wangel, on the other hand, has made a good choice; however, the choice had not been freely made, and, for this reason, Ellida cannot accept its validity. Despite her husband’s kindness and gentleness, Ellida has remained aloof: she is alienated not merely from her husband, but also from her step-daughters, who have come to despise her.

Into this naturalistic situation, Ibsen introduces his own brand of poetic imagery, which, in this play, hints at the demonic and the supernatural. Ellida had grown up in the far North, by the sea: even now, she is drawn to the sea, and to all it represents – openness, freedom, even terror – everything that is closed to her in her stolidly middle-class bourgeois marriage. And she is haunted by a memory of the past: she had betrothed herself to a sailor, and, despite this sailor being very likely a murderer, had solemnised the betrothal by tying together two rings, and throwing them into the sea. This sailor had said he will return for her, but he hadn’t: now, it appears, he may be dead. But, precisely half way through the play, this man, who may be dead, returns, and claims her. Ellida, significantly, does not recognise him at first, but when she does, she finds the claims of this ghostly man and all that he represents irresistible. But at the same time, she hates herself for what she desires.

There is a strong element of folklore in all this: Ibsen makes use here of the same legend that had inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” – of the Lady from the Sea who comes to the land, grows land-legs, and finds herself unable to return. But while the Little Mermaid’s failure to return to the sea is tragic, Ibsen considers other possibilities: human beings, after all, are capable of growth, of development: they are capable of “acclimatisation”. In his earlier masterpiece, Peer Gynt had been happy to let his face grow to fit whatever mask happened to be the most convenient at the time, but when he tries to find out who he really is, he finds himself to be like an onion – merely layer upon accumulated layer, with no real centre; but his opposite is Brand, the absolutist, the utterly inflexible, the man who is prepared to destroy what is most dear to him rather than compromise. Here, in a naturalistic setting, Ibsen ponders upon the possible meanings of the story of the Little Mermaid: is developing land legs necessarily a bad thing? Is not the ability to compromise among mankind’s most remarkable features, and possibly even its saving grace? In short, is the story of the Little Mermaid necessarily tragic?

The subplots – unusual in an Ibsen play – are fully but unobtrusively developed. There’s the younger daughter, Hilde, whom we will see again in the later play The Master Builder: in that play, when it is suggested that she return home, she says “Wild birds do not fly back into their cages”. Here, we see the cage for ourselves, and to be frank, it doesn’t seem so bad. But she is a wild bird, all the same: we see her here fascinated by a young man who is absurdly foolish and self-obsessed, and who doesn’t realise that he is dying; Hilde, however, knows, and, fascinated by his impending death, teases him mercilessly. The older sister, Bolette, is much gentler, but she too has dreams of breaking out of the backwater which is the only world she knows, and coming to terms with the world outside. But the only way she can leave her native backwater is to accept the proposal of Arnholm, who had formerly been her tutor. She does not see him as a husband, but what choice does she have? Earlier in the play, Ellida had told her husband  that he had “bought” her: her husband had been shocked and hurt, but could not deny the justice of the accusation. And now, we see the same pattern repeating itself: Bolette is being “bought” by her prospective husband. But things are not quite so simple as such a bald summary might suggest: Arnholm, like Ellida’s husband Wangel, is a decent and kindly man: possibly, in time, Bolette may “acclimatise” as well.

But acclimatisation cannot, and must not, be taken for granted. Wangel had been hurt when his wife had told him that he had “bought” her, but he must accept the truth of this. And he is duty-bound, as an honest man, to set her free. And this he does in the climactic scene of the play: it is a heroic effort, and such heroism is unexpected in a character who has been presented in generally unheroic terms. But nonetheless, he does set her free: whatever choice she makes now is her own, freely made. Ellida is taken aback, “With all your heart?”she asks in astonishment. Yes, her husband replies replies in pain, “with all my suffering heart”. And at this point, Ellida knows what her choice is, and it is not what she had expected. She has, despite everything, “acclimatised”.


In Ibsen’s very next play, Hedda Gabler, we are back in a human hell. No  longer are we out in the open air by the fjords and mountains: we are stuck, claustrophobically enclosed, in a bourgeois drawing room, in which all passions turn hellish and destructive. This is not because Ibsen had changed his mind about marriage: he was, as ever, exploring new and different facets. But Hedda Gabler , powerful though it is, does not negate this rich, rare play in which Ibsen considers the possibility that we humans may, despite everything, pull through together after all.