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A bravura performance from Niamh Cusack in a new translation of Ibsen’s Ghosts

2016 November 24
by Paul Vallely


Home, Manchester

4 stars


The stage appears to have been turned through 45 degrees so it protrudes, in a diamond shape, into the auditorium. In the corner nearest to the audience stands an empty bentwood chair. It was only after the play had ended that I worked out what this curious mise-en-scène represented in Polly Findlay’s ingenious production of a new translation of one of the foundational texts of modern drama – Ibsen’s Ghosts.

The empty chair is the chair of Captain Alving, the character who never appears but whose dissolute personal life dominates the action even so many years after his death. It is eventually occupied by Alving’s son, Osvald, only at the point where he realises that he is the inheritor of his father’s legacy. In public that inheritance is a home for orphans as a tribute to the life of a man lauded as the apotheosis of virtue. In private the inheritance is the terminal syphilis with which Osvald has been born thanks to his alcoholic father’s endless womanising. The sins of the fathers visited upon the children.

There is a bravura performance from the peerless Niamh Cusack as the Captain’s widow, struggling years later to come to terms with the life he led and the deception she practiced in pretending to the world that he was the acme of righteousness. Much of the skill of the new translation by the playwright David Watson lies in lines which are superficially banal and yet shot through with subtext. Cusack gives an extraordinary performance in which the very thought-processes of the philanderer’s widow come alive in a compelling between-the-lines piece of acting.

Ibsen wrote the play in 1881 when its critique of puritan religion, portrayal of extra-marital sex and allusions to venereal disease, incest and euthanasia deeply shocked his contemporaries. It’s difficult for a modern translation to convey that sense of outrage; today Osvald’s defence of promiscuity sounds like commonplace received wisdom. Yet David Watson combines a sense of colloquial modernity with the claustrophobic atmosphere of a repressed society.

The Olivier award-winning director draws nicely-judged performances from William Travis as the cloven-hooved ever-so-umble Engstrand and Norah Lopez Holden as the daughter determined to break away but entrapped in the orbit of her debased father. Jamie Ballard makes credible the anguish of the Calvinist pastor and Ken Nwosu deftly captures a mix of worldly knowingness and self-delusion as the doomed Osvald. Go and see this.

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