Ibsen’s Ghosts Review

Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton – until 11 May 2019

Reviewed by Boo Wakefield


Ghosts was originally written in Danish by Norwegian Henrik Ibsen in 1881. This new version has been translated and adapted by Mike Poulton. In some ways it’s a shame Poulton and the various translations of the play over the years have chosen to translate the Danish word Gengangere as Ghosts: firstly there are actually no ghosts in the play; and secondly, the literal meaning is “the thing that walks again” which is far more apt for what is to come – a play about lies and shame, about crushing societal hypocrisy, and about “the sins of the father being visited on his child” in the form of neurosyphilis – the thing that literally walks again.  It is a rollercoaster of emotions that left the audience stunned and my husband in tears. This play is no light-hearted romantic night out nor is it for the faint-hearted. Written by Ibsen intentionally to be a slap in society’s face, it still hits hard today.

Set on the remote Norwegian island of Rosenvald, it has been raining for weeks with no sign of abating.  Gloom and darkness are prevalent, reflecting the emotionally stunted and deeply unhappy lives being lived under it. The set is simple but brilliant; lit in subtle green-blue lighting with the sound of constant rain it puts us in the front room of the manor house belonging to widow Helen Alving (Penny Downie) but cleverly shows the dining room at the back of the stage through fine mesh walls where silent sub-plots can be seen.  Helen’s son Osvald (Pierro Niel-Mee) has returned from Paris for the opening of the orphanage built by Helen in memory of her late husband.  Pastor Manders (James Wilby) has arrived to deliver the late Captain Alving’s eulogy at the opening.  Regina Engstrand (Eleanor McLoughlin) is Helen’s maid and the daughter of Jakob Engstrand (Declan Conlon), a violent drunk hired to help build the orphanage.

Over the course of the day and night before the opening, the play exposes the web of lies and hypocrisy that bind the characters and the lives to which each of them has been condemned by society’s strait-jacket. To describe the plot in detail here would be to spoil the play so I won’t. You should go and see it – it is a slick and high-quality production. If the definition of a good play is that you wake up thinking about it the next morning then this is a good play, thought provoking and emotionally powerful – just don’t expect it to leave you full of the joys of spring!