Theatre Review: Ghosts at the Almeida Theatre

Lesley Manville as Helene Alving and Jack Lowden as Oswald in Ghosts at The Almeida Theatre

Lesley Manville as Helene Alving and Jack Lowden as Oswald in Ghosts at The Almeida Theatre - Credit: Archant


Almeida Theatre


Brace yourselves. This version of Ibsen’s Ghosts is unrelenting. There’s no interval and few scene changes, except for the lights dimming on an already gloomy stage. Tim Hatley’s gorgeous set, with its misty glass windows and shadowy beauty, is hemmed in by huge black doors. It’s like being trapped inside an enormous coffin.

Lesley Manville – never an actress to shy away from sorrow – stars as the long-widowed, long-suffering Helene Alving. With hair swept up and glasses perched on her nose, she resembles an impossibly elegant headmistress. Manville’s Helene is alert and stern but crackles with a deeply buried sense of the absurd.

Ghosts opens with the return of Helene’s long-absent son, Oswald (Jack Lowden), a young painter who, according to local Pastor (Will Keen), has been “tainted” by a life spent in artistic pursuits. Lowden certainly looks beaten; like Freddie Flintoff with all the sparkle knocked out of him.

Richard Eyre, who directs his own (new) translation, cultivates a fascinating chemistry between the pious pastor, life-loving Oswald and conflicted Helene. Keen’s voice is dim and dark; the product of a life spent with head bowed and the world avidly listening. As he advises Helene about her patronage of the local orphanage, he rests his hand softly on a model of the building. It’s as if he has taken up the position of God, hovering above the tiny world below. Manville’s perfomance is fascinatingly fluid. She is initially stiff and brusque, as if frozen from the inside out by her dead husband’s cruel behaviour. But the return of Oswald begins to thaw her out. When Manville laughs, it doesn’t feel like an expression of joy – but a release of sorrow. It’s an odd, icy happiness that makes one shiver.

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Eyre occasionally over-eggs an already weighty pudding. There’s a bit too much “dramatic” red lighting and the sick-bed conclusion feels hammy. But this is still a devastating play and a brilliant study of the corrosive impact of self-preservation.

Until November 23.