Ibsen's Ghosts is not as well known in the UK as other of his plays, such as A Doll's House or Hedda Gabbler for two reasons: it's about syphilis, an unsavoury disease, the trauma of which is now historical. While its title (in Norwegian 'Gengangere') has no direct equivalent in English, the literal translation is 'a thing that walks again'. We may have vampires, zombies and ghosts but none of these renderings of the dead exactly evoke the theme of the uncanny raised here. English just doesn't have a word for this sense that traces of the dead may be glimpsed in the living.

Richard Eyre's adaptation of Charlotte Barslund's translation of Ibsen's work does the original energetic service, cutting the running time to under 100 minutes, and allowing it to play without an interval. In this time we witness the final desolation of a dutiful, conscientious widow Helene (Leslie Manville) as the modicum of happiness she has worked towards for years unravels. Across a beautiful and evocative set, where a drawing room is divided from the dining room beyond it by a transparent but greyly occluded wall, we glimpse the ghosts that haunt Helene in her son Oswald (Jack Lowden) and maid Regina (Charlene McKenna) as their flirtations act as potent reminders of both past affairs and their own origins, as well as of future dangers.

Every encounter, the play seems to suggest, is not simply an echo of the past, but bound in with it. The protagonists are not simply repeating the same kinds of mistake, but are trapped in a Boethian cycle, freedom from which is never more than a tantalising illusion. Even so this production zips through these heavy themes with a lightness that is for the most part refreshing and occasionally seems like an anxious flight from the dread hand of melodrama.

Manville’s performance at the heart of the story brings equal measures of integrity, passion and despair to the story of a life dedicated to the protection of family honour at the cost of public deceit and private misery. She is the emotional heart of this production, and yet this is also partly the consequence of soft-peddling elsewhere. Will Keen gives a kind of comic turn to the role of Pastor Manders with his strangulated vowels directed as often towards the gallery as towards the rest of the cast.

In many ways his is a good performance, but it’s the wrong one for a character who ought to be Helene’s foil – as much misled by his fidelity to the institution of the church as she is to that of family. And not just to the institution but to a life of devout integrity. Instead the pastor is portrayed as a priggish figure whose own tragedy is diminished by his apparent silliness. By the conclusion he merely looks to have made a mildly perverse lifestyle choice, rather than confronted the horror of a life spent in imminent purgatory.

Similarly Brian McCardie playing Jacob Engstrand is charismatic where he might be cruel. Given that Jacob is a man without a moral compass, whose ruling desire is to build a brothel for sailors (where incidentally he would happily pimp his adopted daughter Regina) the decision to portray him as a bumbling, cheerful chancer undercuts the cynicism of his motives. It also mitigates the impact of the compromises other characters are obliged to reach with him.

In his programme notes Eyre points out how disease is both real and a metaphor for society. This production does service to this idea but seems to miss how disease also acts as a religious metaphor for the much bleaker concept of original sin; the echo in every human error of Adam’s fall and our lonely helplessness before an inscrutable God. 

Ibsen's original is a crueller, darker affair than is admitted here, though perhaps we aren't ready yet for these particular ideas to walk again.

Ghosts, at Almeida Theatre

Richard Eyre's elegant adaptation has won much acclaim elsewhere but some cautious performance choices mean that its unlikely to haunt audiences in the way that it should.

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