Certain problems that were fiery in Ibsen’s time have long been doused, and he would have been overjoyed that indignation about living in sin would be roundly mocked by today’s audiences.
But the final question in Ghosts of euthanasia is still such a contentious topic that the climax had a breathtaking impact.
The tone of the work is one of repression, but as each family secret leaks out another one is revealed and complications multiply until there is nothing left but raw, exposed love and regret.
The setting reflected the tone; Victorian costumes and interiors, with cold blues and greens defusing passion and lust.
Ghosts, seen here in a new adaptation by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is an ensemble piece with riveting, detailed performances from the whole cast, but the central pillar is the tangled, beneficent Mrs Aveling.
Played by Suzanne Burden, Mrs Aveling showed gravity and resilience that hinted at her depth of experience long before the burdens of her mind were unloaded. This was skilfully done since she never paraded her sorrow or anguish for the audience; something in her bearing and her resonant voice suggested endurance but not penitence. In her longer, more poetic moments there was a sense that she was wringing long held beliefs from her heart, never just reciting pointed, poignant lines.
Paul Hickey played his part wonderfully as the Pastor who once had urges, but had suppressed them so successfully that he looks like he could never have been the object of Mrs Aveling’s desire.
Each character (except Engstrand) had a moment alone in the house, unobserved. This was a great opportunity for the director, Bijan Sheibani, to reveal something of the characters, and here we had a bravura display of understatement and subtlety. A masterpiece like this doesn’t need re-contextualising or metaphorical set design to shake off the Victorian cobwebs. Though the direction was superb, there was no special intervention, faithful to the text and the solidity of the characters.
Ibsen repeatedly shows how much good can come from morally questionable acts, therefore questioning the sanctity of morals themselves. The play teeters between general philosophical thoughts and specific personal situations. This seems to illustrate what the play is really about: what can supposedly universal morality and ideals ever mean in the light of deep personal crises? And the crises were wrung with urgent desperation.