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November 2003
Ibsen revival is a ghost of productions past
Tom Eyre-Maunsell as Oswald, and Jeany Spark as Regine.
Tom Eyre-Maunsell as Oswald, and Jeany Spark as Regine.
  The sexual and syphilitic setting of Ibsen's Ghosts no longer has critics reaching for the smelling salts. Reviewer Clare Bevis finds is still has weighty power - but for different reasons.
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By Clare Bevis
Runner Up, Student Feature Writer of the Year Guardian Student Media Awards

Shock: shock seems to be the byword for Ibsen's Ghosts.

On its Victorian premiere it was received with horrified sickened disgust. "An open drain," groaned one review; "the sort of play that requires ammonia…"

Ammonia? Where on earth did that come from?

Chip Horne (Pastor Manders) and Lorna Beckett (Mrs Alving).
Chip Horne (Pastor Manders) and Lorna Beckett (Mrs Alving).

This week's production of Ghosts at the OFS is craven, tense, tuned tightly to the growing desperation of Ibsen's family tragedy, but it is cold, and harsh, and quiet.

It is a play not remotely in need of ammonia.

Today, of course, the social climate is very different from the 19th century Norway in which Ibsen wrote his masterpiece, and it's difficult to view the play in the same light.

Its themes of sexual independence versus moral hypocrisy, and, indirectly, of inherited syphilis, were controversial in a way that they can never be now.

But this Ghosts is still trying to shock us. "The play takes an angry knife to convention", says director Andrew Leveson.

"The force of the outrage that greeted Ghosts on its premiere can still be felt today."

quoteThe outrage that greeted Ghosts on its premiere can still be felt today quote
Andrew Leveson, director of Ghosts

Not true. The force of this production, driven by the increasingly powerful Tom Eyre-Maunsell and Lorna Beckett as the two leads, is the strain of family relations in social conventions.

The set is minimal, the emotion tightly under control.

This is the story of a young artist and his mother in a remote fjord-side house in Norway, playing out the dysfunctional, wicked life of the dead father.

How many secrets? What should we tell? And where will we end?

Ghosts has a horrible sadness, but its ending bows under the weight of lost and repressed love, not horror.

Performed with a serious kind of integrity and put together with care and restraint, Ghosts is a worthy echo of the reforming social fervour that made Ibsen tell the King of Sweden: "I had to write that play."

It's just a quiet echo, not a screaming one. And that's fine.

Frank McGuinness's version of Ibsen's Ghosts is due to be presented in London's West End in 2004.

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