In this new production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, Iain Glen directs himself as Pastor Manders, a man who thinks duty should always be put before happiness.
But, as current news stories attest, that advice is hard to follow when your duty is to be married to a philandering husband. Mrs Alving had that cross to bear, until her husband died 10 years ago. Unable to exorcise his ghost, she exorcises his money instead by paying for an orphanage in his name, while the effects of his life remain a constant presence in her own. When her grown son Oswald, whom she sent away aged seven, returns home, he brings with him the echo of her husband’s weaknesses.
On Stephen Brimson Lewis’s drawing room set, serene and refined with its grey marble-effect walls, Lesley Sharp cuts an elegant figure as Mrs Alving, whose outer calm belies years of suppressing the past. Strong and opinionated, she is a survivor, showing the strength of a mother’s love as she reveals the tough decision she once made to protect her son from his father’s actions. As Oswald (Harry Treadaway) tells his mother the real reason he has returned, Sharp shows that even Mrs Alving is not strong enough to bear that.
Of the rest of the cast, Malcolm Storry is the devious carpenter Engstrand, who uses the situation to his advantage, and Jessica Raine blooms with early womanhood as Mrs Alving’s frustrated maid Regina, who proves to have learnt a thing or two about strength from her employer. Glen, as Mrs Alving’s confidant advisor and, possibly, former love, proves as unworldly as he is naive, spouting moralistic judgments which seem ineffectual and ridiculous in light of Mrs Alving’s history.
Having last year seen Gillian Anderson as Nora in A Doll’s House, Ibsen’s younger heroine who made the decision to leave her dominating husband, it is poignant to see how it could have turned out for her had she stayed, as Mrs Alving did. In relating one to the other, Ibsen makes no case for duty at all.