Writer: Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Richard Eyre
Director: Richard Eyre
Reviewer: Robert Cottingham
By some strange coincidence there are currently two productions of Ibsen’s play being produced in London. Stephen Unwin’s new staging opened recently in Kingston upon Thames and here is a dark production from Richard Eyre for the Almeida. It’s a stark play, with much of the same raw power of Ibsen’s other works A Doll’s house and Hedda Gabler. It attacks religion, the family, marriage – all institutions which are held up by society – and the play makes a case instead for free love and women’s rights as being alternatives, a way to have an easier life.
His unhappy heroine is Helene Alving, about to dedicate an orphanage to her late husband, and her son has returned for the occasion from time away in Rome. She has spent her life doing what the church, family, society insist is right for her, yet when the pastor speaks glibly about her marriage, hidden truths come tumbling out and the unravelling of her world proves unable to stop.
Watching this play shows how much we’ve changed since Ibsen’s day. The pastor would have been a character to be feared, when the play was first performed. Now, we simply laugh at his faith and belief in God and in fact he is quite a pitiful character, who almost deserves our sympathy. When the play was first performed it was described as “a dirty deed done in public”, but what Richard Eyre’s production drives home is it is more society’s structures which are to be blamed for the tragedy we witness.
The characters have been lying: Helene to her son about his father, the pastor to Helene about his feelings for her, and Jacob to his daughter. Then when the Pastor comes for lunch, Helene can’t stop telling the truth, laying into institution after institution. As Helene, Lesley Manville gives a powerful and emotional performance, aided well by Will Keen as the manipulative pastor, Jack Lowden as son Oswald, and Charlene McKenna, the maid who discovers that her own life has been a lie.
Tim Hatley’s set is realistic, but with a translucent wall that suggests half-truths and Richard Eyre finds powerful symbolism in this towards the end. As the sun sets for a new day, the play lays bare the characters’ inner lives.