What a night of degenerate filth. It was quite superb. The new Made in Northampton production at the Royal Theatre in Northampton is Ibsen’s Ghosts.
It’s first performance in Victorian London provoked extraordinary criticism. It was not even a public performance because the play had been banned by the Lord Chamberlain but the language was unequivocal: ‘wretched… loathsome… unclean… revolting… horrible…’
It was a little stroke of genius to include those quotes in the programme notes for this version from playwright Mike Poulton and director Lucy Bailey.
Ghosts is about the precarious rebuilding of lives lived in the wake of abuse and the tyranny of a kind of monolithic morality that is crushing the survivors.
Needless to say morality, as it has a habit of doing, has moved on and the reaction of the Victorian critics to drama based around domestic violence, syphilis and adultery only reinforces the suffocating refusal to recognise its impact at the time.
James Wilby as Pastor Manders pulsates with moral ambiguity: lecturing one moment, conspiring the next, ingratiating one moment then ferociously judgemental.
The transitions are seamless and allow Manders to be both a villain and a fool – getting laughs but also producing some of the most shocking moments.
There were intakes of breath in the auditorium when he ripped into Penny Downie’s Helen Alving and accused her of having failed as a mother. It was some dissing and the power of it was a pretty good advert for the live theatre experience.
Downie’s warm dignity in the face of this and all the other staggering injustices unravelling around her is a quiet triumph. We are all clinging to her a bit by the time everything has played out.
Declan Conlon as dissolute dad Jakob Engstrand is another kind of disturbing clown who might prick our pompous assumptions that our confessional modern culture handles these social problems any better.
In the first scene he seemed like a monster but by the end his readiness to confess “I am weak” made you feebly cross your fingers for him and his traumatised daughter Regina, who was played with feisty energy by Eleanor McLoughlin.
Pierro Niel-Mee was assured as Osvald, a character spiralling into deeper torments with every new exposure of truth.
It all played out on a dark but ethereal Mike Britton set layered with net draping, revealing busy household servants like preoccupied phantoms in the background.
This production of Ghosts is like one of those clever gastronomic takes on a classic – it tastes like a full roast and veg but you don’t walk out with that heavy bloated feeling afterwards. It is a tale told well.
If you dare confront what the Victorian Daily Telegraph described as “a dirty act done publicly” in its modern form you won’t be disappointed.