A Shorter, Funnier Evening In Ibsen’s Day Room

Brian McCardie and  Charlene McKenna in GHOSTS Photo by Stephanie Berger

Brian McCardie and Charlene McKenna in GHOSTS
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Almeida Theater’s “Ghosts,” under the direction of Richard Eyre and with a widely and deservedly talked about performance by Leslie Manville, finds an environmentally beneficent home at BAM’s Harvey Theater.  The frayed elegance of the Harvey’s distressed renovation frames the perfectly appointed late 19th century aristocratic day room where most of the action unfolds with hauntings of the undoing dormant within it.  Originally opened as a movie palace and christened the Majestic only two decades after Ibsen’s drama first startled and shocked Victorian mores, the Harvey, with its rough exposed concrete and fading paint, serves to catalyze a quicker emergence of the syphilitic decay at the heart of the play.

When the lights go down, the rain starts falling, which we can see beyond the double-paned glass separating the day room from the dining room, and then through the windows beyond.  We see the trees in the distance taking the rain.   We feel a cooling, and with it a premonition of things to come, for the play feels cool in Eyre’s hands.  It feels lighter.

In this production, Ibsen’s three acts are reduced to 90 minutes.  By way of this distillation—an adaptation undertaken by Eyre himself—some of the subtle suggestion and some of the stewing that pave a longer, more discomfiting path through the original script are lost.  However, what salvages (and in some places sharpens) Eyre’s version of the script is his use of explicit markers, early announcements of things that go unannounced or that remain longer inexplicit in Ibsen’s play, and in combination with his crisp direction they serve to cull humor out of a play that has never struck me as humorous on the page.

As Helene Alving (Manville) explicitly articulates her undimmed attraction to Pastor Manders (Will Keen),  he deflects with a recounting of his prideful moment of restraint. Decades earlier, when she, only a year into her marriage, came to him (then a young seminary student) and offered herself, a model of the orphanage that the Pastor is about to dedicate on Alving’s property (in honor of her philandering late husband) is taken out and placed on the table as distraction. The language here, even adapted and modernized, offers us classic Ibsen: a brave woman yearning to free herself from convention and live in accordance with her truth; a man shrouding himself in the obligations of rectitude, and tangling himself in the scraping brush of hypocrisy. And in a powerful technique that appears at other times in the show, the model orphanage becomes more than visual distraction from each other for these actors. The model becomes a touching post for Keen and Manville here, an excuse for proximity, and an object upon which to release sensuality and compulsive desire.  In this sense, Eyre’s more explicit version of the text is made suddenly quite funny by the repression evident in gesture, with the clarity of this repression a testament to the actors’ precision in a theater of more than 850 seats.

There is something about the rapid sharing in this condensed version that appeals to me.  We are all announcing ourselves a bit more these days and so the characters’ announcements, though anachronistic, given their Victorian context, are received by us naturally.   Eyre’s attention to the physical asks us to pay attention to the repression we are all prone to, no matter how freely and easily words and secrets might pour forth from our mouths and fingers.


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