TOM SUTCLIFFE wonders why Ibsen’s controversial play is so rarely performed

Ibsen’s play Ghosts has never been staged at the National Theatre – a serious omission in its 50 years’ existence. Probably Ibsen’s most controversial work, written in 1881, Ghosts was banned by the Lord Chamberlain because the matter with which it dealt, syphilis, infidelity, dishonesty, the sins of a dead father being visited upon his artist son, was deemed shockingly unsuitable. The Dutchman, naturalised Brit Jack Grein, gave the play one single private London performance in 1891 mounted at the Royalty Theatre by the Independent Theatre Society which he had founded, in a translation by William Archer. Both men were behind the setting-up of the Critics Circle in London 100 years ago, their advocacy of Ibsen being among the most useful things any London theatre critic has ever done.

Devastatingly topical

Ghosts is a string quintet of a piece, beautiful and terrifying. It’s a play which depends on subtle characterisations and is best achieved by members of a theatre ensemble who are used to acting together and can therefore judge precisely how to calibrate every personal detail in the story without false acting. In most respects it remains devastatingly topical, though syphilis is no longer a killer since the discovery of penicillin. There are also some other difficulties for a contemporary public.

When I saw the play in Melbourne the public laughed at Pastor Manders, because they thought everything he said was absurdly old-fashioned, and also because the role was played in a one-dimensional way. A clergyman who believes in duty is a laughing matter for some. There were people at the performance from the Drama Department at Monash University. They did not know the play and could not understand why I was so upset at the distortions in the performance and the audience reactions.

Presumption and prejudice

There is also the awkward issue of class. Regina Engstrand is working as a maidservant in Mrs Alving’s house, though we later learn that her father was in fact Court Chamberlain Alving, in whose memory Pastor Manders and Mrs Alving are in the business of establishing a memorial asylum. How would a servant in these circumstances behave? Only the mega-rich in Britain have had servants since 1945. The nature of the unwritten and unspoken, though perhaps sung about, contract at the heart of The Marriage of Figaro (to name one of the greatest masterpieces about masters and servants) is almost unfathomable to today’s audiences who are seldom asked to imagine in useful ways. Most lazy directors simply encourage the public to roll out their clichéd presumptions and prejudices about anything ‘we all agree about’. The very title of the play is hard to translate: Gengangere in Danish, in which Ibsen wrote then original,

strictly mean: ‘Returners’; though the word ghosts is used in the play to describe something happening again. The Court Chamberlain’s son is trying to get off with his half-sister, exactly as his father had got off with her mother, Mrs Alving’s chamber-maid: always a chilling moment.

Impressive and deeply passionate

I saw Ghosts for the first time from the gallery at the Prince’s Theatre in 1959 with Flora Robson as Mrs Alving and Donald Wolfit as Pastor Manders. Wolfit was of course a larger than life character, full of confidence. Robson was authoritative, resolute, very different from how the role was done in either of the current performances in London. Richard Eyre’s staging at the Almeida, till November 23, has Lesley Manville as a very impressive and deeply passionately felt Helene Alving.

The play is thoroughly fascinating, even though none of the rest of the cast really has the fine-tuning I would like; Will Keen’s Manders especially being too ungraded in his narrowness, and Charlene McKenna as the servant Regina taking refuge in feisty Scottishness. Regionalism is a frequent refuge for British actors who don’t know what they are doing or have been badly directed; a feckless shorthand. At the remarkable Rose Theatre, Kingston-upon-Thames, with Stephen Unwin directing, Kelly Hunter’s Mrs Alving was more domestic than Ms Manville but equally sensitive. Patrick Drury’s Manders was less cramped but also rather one-dimensional. And neither Mark Quartley nor the Almeida’s inexperienced Jack Lowden really possessed the bold masculinity and maturity that Ronald Lewis brought to the syphilitic son Osvald, who is not a hysterical adolescent but serious in his views.

Social hypocrisy and religious conviction

This great play, which is a deeply moving poem about social hypocrisy and the reality of true religious conviction, demands virtuoso acting in every role; like a quintet. I doubt I really grasped its meaning fully when I was turning 16. It is very grown-up stuff. But these are roles that all our best actors should have done, and they haven’t. Somehow the National Theatre has forgotten about its curatorial role, the obligation to inhabit and keep fresh the masterpieces of world theatre, rather than merely making a fast buck in West End transfers or not losing money, and above all the fostering of performance opportunities for our finest actors in all these crucial roles.

The curating is not just of texts but of people and skills. I hope Rufus Norris will reject the very poor example set by Nicholas Hytner as director of the National when he takes over. Hytner took the £19 million subsidy as a cushion for commercial exploitation. Norris should take a look at how other major national theatres work in Europe. ND