Ghosts – Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton

Writer: Mike Poulton, based on the play by Henrik Ibsen

Director: Lucy Bailey

Reviewer: Katy Roberts

When it was first published in 1882, Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts caused immediate controversy and attracted fierce condemnation from critics and the public alike. Now staged in the Royal and Derngate’s intimate Royal Theatre as part of their 2019 Made in Northampton season, this new adaptation by playwright Mike Poulton, with direction from Lucy Bailey, has lost none of its bite and its scathing criticism of 19th-century morality feels just as relevant today.

Ghosts takes place over the course of an afternoon and evening, following the widowed Helen Alving (Penny Downie), as she struggles to keep the secrets of her late husband hidden from her son Osvald (Pierro Niel-Mee), recently returned home from Paris, though he too, comes harbouring a dreadful secret of his own.

Downie’s performance as Helen is outstanding; every emotion is etched across her face as she attempts to navigate her way through the turmoil that her decades of lies have tangled her up in. James Wilby is fantastic as the hugely unlikeable Pastor Manders, though some of his lines do occasionally get lost due to the speed of his delivery – his explosion of judgement against Helen for her ‘indiscretions’ is almost painful to watch: so vicious and damning is it in its delivery that it elicited a visceral reaction from this audience. The moment Helen responds to Manders’ accusations of her failures as a wife and a mother is truly captivating – she decides in that moment that if he is going to force her hand to keep her conscience clear, then she will do so by taking all the power back and putting him firmly in his place, even if the end result means her family’s destruction. As Osvald, the ‘prodigal son returned’, Pierro Niel-Mee is utterly heartbreaking. Over the course of two hours, we see him collapse completely – physically, mentally and emotionally – under the strain of his mystery illness and the truth of his parents’ deceptions and indiscretions. The moment Osvald realises that the only true memory he has of his father is one where his father made him violently ill by forcing him to smoke his pipe is delivered with such sadness and poignancy, it takes your breath away. Declan Conlan is brilliant as the slippery, manipulative Jakob Engstrand, who wraps Manders around his little finger with almost hilarious ease, and his daughter Regina (Eleanor Mccloughlin) more than matches him in fiery, aggressive spirit.

Mike Britton’s stage design is beautiful – simple, but elegant, with only a few pieces of furniture – and the decision to dress parts of the stage in an almost gauze-like material works beautifully. Making certain scenes appear as if they are occurring underwater, or behind frosted glass feels incredibly apt, considering the predicament of several of the characters: trapped and drowning in the dull, grey confines of an old, dark house whilst the rain lashes down outside, a constant presence that seeps into every fibre of the house and every pore of every character. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Richard Hammarton’s sound design are used to glorious effect throughout – but spectacularly so during the orphanage fire, which engulfs the stage with smoke and the sound of splintering wood and collapsing brick. The production’s final harrowing scene is bathed in golden light, a stark and terrifying contrast that works to phenomenal effect, alongside the gut-punch performances of Niel-Mee and Downie.

Despite its period setting, this new adaptation by Mike Poulton makes Ibsen’s writing and social commentary feel as fresh and relevant as ever, while Lucy Bailey’s carefully-considered direction keeps the pace of the piece moving so the two hours pass in a blur, led by powerhouse performances of an exceptional cast – particularly Penny Downie and Pierro Niel-Mee. An outstanding addition to the Royal and Derngate’s Made in Northampton repertoire.

Runs Until 11 May 2019 | Image: Sheila Burnett

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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