Ghosts review – spirits of the dead haunt Ibsen's gripping classic

A great Manchester Guardian critic, CE Montague, once wrote of Ibsen’s play that it has “a kind of aghast grimness, a bald, austere hardness of conception”. The good thing about Lucy Bailey’s production and Mike Poulton’s new version is that they balance the need to overcome the stranglehold of the past with an awareness of Ibsen’s irony and humour. When Pastor Manders declares “the last thing we need here is the truth” the audience rightly laughs.

Poulton’s version has its own flicks of wit: there is a neat pun in the plan of the treacherous handyman, Engstrand, to set up a marine brothel which he calls “a mission for seamen”. But, a few colloquialisms aside, this is a respectful version and Mike Britton’s design, with its visible debt to the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershoi, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Richard Hammarton’s sound-score all remind us of the influence of climate on character: this is a part of Norway that has 67% rainfall and there is a luminous dankness to the setting that explains Osvald Alving’s sense of entrapment.

Sacrifice … Penny Downie. Photograph: Sheila Burnett

Ibsen’s main theme is the necessity to liberate oneself from the spirits of the dead, and this emerges clearly in Penny Downie’s Helen Alving. Having sacrificed herself to duty, she radiates joy when the orphanage devoted to the mythical memory of her late husband burns down: “It’s quite a bonfire,” she ecstatically declares. Downie also captures the tragic intensity of a woman who realises that her syphilitic son, played with the right sense of disintegrating despair by Pierro Niel-Mee, is doomed by his inheritance.

James Wilby is a striking Pastor Manders, playing him not as a dry old stick but as a man in early middle age who combines credulous naivety with an intemperate anger that leads him to describe Osvald as “a self-righteous young prick”. There is good support from Declan Conlon as the manipulative Engstrand and Eleanor McLoughlin as the calculating Regina. Even if the production offers few blinding revelations, it does something relatively rare these days: it exposes the sinews of a theatrical classic without crushing it under the weight of a directorial concept.

At the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, until 11 May.

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