Ghosts at the Royal and Derngate review

Ghosts

Royal and Derngate Theatre Northampton, 2nd May 2019

A little bit of back to back Ibsen action. First this Ghosts and then, a few days later, Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s. And the Tourist’s first visit to the Royal and Derngate which, he has Benn rather slow to observe, has been producing some very tempting offers as of late. I gather most of the drama here, (plays not fist-fights), takes place in the Royal with the larger Derngate offering a broader range of entertainment (Wet, Wet, Wet on the evening of the afternoon the Tourist attended, for those few of you who might be tempted by such). Both are wrapped inside a fine, open foyer area and I gather there are other spaces as well, the Underground Studio and a Filmhouse. All round very impressive.

As was this production of Ghosts, masterminded by director Lucy Bailey in a new version from Mike Poulton. Mr Poulton has a long history of adapting the European classics, Chekhov, Schiller, and a definitive version of Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool. His last outing was the excellent RSC two part Imperium, the story of Cicero, which I caught on its London transfer. I last saw Ghosts in 2013/14, two versions pretty much back to back. In Richard Eyre’s West End take Lesley Manville pretty much wiped the floor with any other Helen Alving’s past and future. In the other, Stephen Unwin’s ETT version at the Rose Kingston (his final play there as AD), well let us just charitably say it didn’t quite match it. But Ghosts is such a fine play in my book that it is hard to go too far wrong.

Having said that it is possible to get bogged down in old Henrik’s miserabilism. Religion, syphilis, potential incest and assisted suicide are never likely to make their way into the repertoire of, say, Mischief Theatre, (though Ghosts: The Musical might prove tempting), but there is more in terms of plot and character beyond a metaphor for late C19 moral hypocrisy. Helen Alving, holed up in her gloomy mansion, is a woman of rare depth, her doomed son Osvald does have moments of joy, at least potentially, Pastor Manders is not entirely devoid of sympathy, Jakob Engstrand wants to atone and Regina will, I think, one day come to terms with her parentage.

Indeed if it wasn’t for the prize c*nt, the dead Captain Alving, things might have been very different. He was the faithless husband who ruins his wife’s, his son’s and Regina’s lives. The sins of the father and all that. (The Danish/Norwegian title is Gengangere, “the thing that walks again”, which is more like a revenant than a ghost, someone and something that comes back to haunt others). By confronting the past Helen knows she is going to make things worse, of course, but this is also, as with all of Ibsen’s important women, a catharsis to break free from that past and to engage with the truth however ugly. To reject the social mores and religious convention that trapped her in the painful marriage, even if it is too late for her son and her dead husband’s illegitimate daughter.

Lucy Bailey, Mike Poulton and designer Mike Britton have worked together before and it shows. Adaptation flows into direction which is perfectly framed by the set. Mr Britton was apparently inspired by Edvard Munch’s art. Munch produced numerous illustrations of Ibsen’s plays and designed a production of the play in 1906 shortly after HI’s death. The darkest of dark blue-greens, think Farrow and Ball Green Smoke but darker, creates a fitting “psychological” backdrop. Gauze screens divide reception rooms and conjure up spectres. Props, costumes and architecture details are spot on period, straight out of a Vilhelm Hammershoi interior (as above). This is what Ibsen should look like. After the effective orphanage fire the set does angle back to create a “pit” which the actors have to clumsily navigate but otherwise this was perfection.

Made more so by Oliver’s Fenwick’s moody lighting and by Richard Hammarton’s sound design and composition. No barely audible ambient background noise here. A proper soundscape. With lots and lots of rain and a proper fire. And some top drawer cello, violin and piano chord dissonance.

It is possible to judge the success of a production of Ghosts as pure drama by the reaction of the uninitiated members of the audience to the various disclosures. Ibsen, being a genius, doesn’t just bounce them out in a line or two of clumsy exposition, they emerge, organically, from the plot. Mr Poulton’s adaptation perfectly registers these twists, not quite turning it into a thriller, that would be asking too much, but definitely more than enough to persuade the Ibsen-curious. Well maybe not all, as I overhead some student-y types complaining it was too “text-y” afterwards. Trust me kids this is as racy as Ibsen gets.

Penny Downie, particularly in the scenes where she rounds on Manders, was a fine, dignified, Helen Alving. Pierro Niel-Mee’s Osvald was a little too camp for my taste. I know he is an artistic type but too much surface petulance risks losing the despair of what might have been. Declan Conlon’s Jakob by contrast was well rounded and Eleanor McLoughlin wisely held back to make her escape at the end more pointed. James Wilby did verge on the shouty at times but his Pastor was sufficiently human, confused, and, finally, ashamed, to make the initial friendship with Helen believable (sometimes a problem if he is overly puritanical).

Apparently Ibsen only took a few weeks to write Ghosts in 1881, whilst summering in Sorrento, though it didn’t get staged until the following year by a Danish company in Chicago. The subject matter was in part a two-fingered riposte to all the churchmen and stiff-necks back home in Norway who got wound up by the his previous play, the far milder A Doll’s House. There his heroine Nora walks out on her sh*t-head husband. Here we see what can happen when a wife is convinced to stay. If HI thought he had wound up his conservative enemies with A Doll’s House, they went batsh*t when Ghosts arrived back home. Even when the King of Sweden loaded up HI with medals and honours galore years later, as he was recognised as Scandi’s greatest cultural export (at least until ABBA, just joking), his maj told him off for writing Ghosts.

HI famously said “we go through life with a corpse on our back”. This masterly version shows just why Ghosts is probably, IMHO, the Ibsen play which best represents this maxim. If our Henrik never stopped picking away at the scabs of his own life and the society around him then Ghosts is when the blood started to properly flow.

I will be back at the R&D. I have seen three of the Made in Northampton shows that are currently touring, Touching the Void, The Remains of the Day and the Headlong Richard III. The first two are outstanding and I see that Touching the Void is coming to London later this year. Mandatory viewing. I missed Our Lady of Kibeho which, judging by the reviews, was a massive oversight. So I am not going to make the same mistake with The Pope, Two Trains Running and A View From The Bridge in the rest of this season.

I can see why the R&D has garnered awards though, and, I say this with the greatest respec,t it is hard to reconcile the fact that its AD, James Dacre, has the ex-editor of the Daily Mail for his dad. It would seem that, in this case, the sins of the father have not been visited on the son.

Phantom Thread film review *****

Phantom_Thread_logo

Phantom Thread, 19th February 2018

I saw Daniel Day-Lewis on stage. In Another Country in the early 1980s. That’s why it’s a good idea to buy programmes and stick them in a box. I remember the play a bit but not really his performance. Not sure I would have guessed he would become the “greatest ever actor” and not sure that epithet is entirely justified anyway. Anyway I was lucky since the only other way to have seen him in the theatre was when he was a student in Bristol or early in his ill-fated Hamlet run.

But he is good even if it is just on film. Very good. Brilliant in fact. Always a commanding screen presence. Whatever he does. Up to him but I reckon he is a bit cheeky retiring. His output isn’t what you’d call prodigious. Still he famously leaves nothing on the table when he performs and I guess he has enough to live on.

So we will have to make do with his cinematic legacy. Good for us he didn’t pursue his cabinet-making ambitions. And probably good for cabinet-makers too. He wouldn’t have made very many but they would be best in class.

His work with director Jim Sheridan counts amongst his best obviously as does his Bill the Butcher in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. But by far his best performance in my view, and that of many others, was as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, an all time Top 10 film for the Tourist. (Saw a memorable showing with a live performance of the score at the South Bank a few years ago with Jonny Greenwood twiddling his ondes martenot) TWBB was written and directed by none other than Paul Thomas Anderson who also does the necessary here in Phantom Thread.

Mr Anderson is an extraordinary film-maker as the string of awards for his films show. I have seen all his films at least once, with the exception of his feature debut Hard Eight and the documentary Junun, (about the making of Inherent Vice). They are all, by turns, baffling, annoying, claustrophobic, frustrating, stimulating, thoughtful, intense and intriguing. He doesn’t hurry, is not averse to repeating motifs, words or themes, and he asks you to think about the story he is telling. He pushes himself and us the audience. In his “tragic’ films his lead characters are powerful but flawed, cursed by hamartia. In his “comic” films the humour is complex and stylised. His camera never takes a pedestrian position and music and sound is never backgrounded. In short his is a very epic, theatrical approach to film-making. Which is why I like his films I guess.

So what about Phantom Thread? Daniel Day-Lewis plays bachelor Reynolds Woodcock, (I wonder how many other ostentatious names Paul Thomas Anderson mulled over before alighting on this corker), who is an obsessive frock designer for the great and good in early 1950s London. He is a genius with the needle and thread, his clients love him and his sister Cyril, played by the exceptional Lesley Manville. cocoons him and dumps his muses for him when they have outlived their usefulness. He is suave, charming, precise and fastidious, but egocentric, boorish whilst still slightly camp, and prone to childish tantrums if all is not to his liking. He definitely loved his Mummy: his dresses are all ultimately tributes to her. He meets mysterious waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) whilst away from London and seduces her. She falls for him, and his life, and moves into the London townhouse which also houses the business. He becomes dependent on her. The film charts their intense relationship and the way it affects him and his work. Reynolds has a fair few issues and a masochistic streak: Alma is his match, literally, equally complex and anything but helpless.

Put like this, as a romance, the story sounds commonplace. In the hands of Mr Anderson and the three leads, though, it is riveting and something altogether more rewarding. It looks, (costume designer Mark Bridges must have been in seventh heaven throughout), and sounds, (Jonny Greenwood should get the Oscar for his eclectic score), magical, but what really draws you in is the depth of these characters. There is a lot wrong, sometimes disturbingly so, with both of the lovers. At first you think Reynolds is just going to eat Alma up for breakfast, (breakfast, and specifically the correct way to butter toast, is a key motif here), then cast her aside. She persists, easing Cyril aside, takes on his mores and eventually finds a striking way to control him. This requires Vicky Krieps to match Mr Day-Lewis. The wonder is she succeeds. A stunning performance. PTA must have been ecstatic when she auditioned.

There is a definite Hitchcockian, or Powell/Pressburger, vibe about the whole affair, and not just in the setting. (I was reminded of the opera version of Marnie at the ENO recently). There are allusions to fairy tales here, the Gothic sort where is all goes pear-shaped for the protagonists. It is often very funny. Yet this still feels, even with PTA’s fractured, exaggerated and unpredictable observation, ripe and real.  A triumph which will need another viewing, and another, for sure.