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.

Wolfie at Theatre503 review ****

Wolfie

Theatre503, 10th April 2019

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Ross Willis is a double espresso with extra shot man. How else to explain the blast of wild energy that is his debut play Wolfie. For sure it is hard to imagine two more vibrant actors than Erin Doherty and Sophie Melville, collectively the “future of British acting”, but even these fearsome talents need something special to get their teeth into. It was by no means perfect but there is an invention and a verve in the telling of this story which made it stand out.

Two sisters, Z and A, whose Mum is unable to cope, are separated at birth and cast into the UK care system. But this is no gritty documentary-drama. First off the story begins in the womb. Z’s foster Mum, Soggy Woman, never leaves the bath. A is brought up by a wolf after her Dad, Bony Man, leaves her for dead in the wood. Trees talk. Woodpecker social workers offer up brutal homilies. Chemistry teachers become parents in absentia. Charity workers donate slices of their kidneys. Mothers snort milk teeth. Waitrose opens and gives A an opportunity in butchery. There is a Jack Whitehall-esque, silver, mansplaining torso. And more. Much more.

It’s a Grimm, though not grim, fairytale, with plain nods to the likes of Angela Carter and Jose Saramango, as well as, minus the theory, Ionesco. However there is a blunt contemporary edge, think Mighty Boosh, even in the more surreal dialogue. The story moves at a hell of a lick, sometimes only becoming clear where we are, and when we are, at birth, aged 13 and 26, in retrospect. It is very funny and, in the hands of exciting young designer Basia Binkowska, lighting from Rajiv Pattani, sound from Richard Hammerton and movement direction by Belinda Lee Chapman, impressive in the way it transforms the tiny 503 space.

Maybe the message gets a little lost in all this metaphor, contrivance and stagecraft, I would have preferred 80-90 minutes straight through, and sometimes it comes close to spirally out of control, but this entertainment is very easy to forgive. Especially, as I say, with these two actors on stage. Sophie Melville and, most especially, Erin Doherty as lead character Soween, were by some margin the best things to emerge from Alan Ayckbourn’s muddled The Divide at the Old Vic, even after it had been slimmed down. Sophie Melville was simply breathtaking as Effie in Gary Owen’s brilliant Iphigenia in Splott. And I have raved before about Erin Doherty (Junkyard, My Name is Rachel Corrie) and I fully expect the world to catch up when she appears in the next series of The Crown on Netflix.

This text and space is made for them. If acting is all about having no fear, even when asked to do the daftest of things, then these two are, no question, actors. They take something which, on the page at least, must have looked pretty daunting and turn it into something utterly tangible. Director Lisa Spirling seems gifted with the same magic dust, or sparkles as Z and A would have it, having brought Rajiv Joseph’s equally ambitious Describe the Night to life at the Hampstead Theatre last year.

Describe the Night at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

nonperson

Describe The Night

Hampstead Theatre, 23rd May 2018

In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Describe the Night hasn’t gone down too well with the London critics. The SO and I think they might have missed a trick. It is ambitious, ranging across several periods of Soviet and post Soviet Russian history, with a fairly cavalier approach to naturalism, and mixes fact and fiction, real and imagined events. Its workshop-py creative methodology shows through, but it was for us highly effective and enlightening. We’ve seen a fair few other plays that have fallen far shorter, despite their more limited intent. So hats off to Rajiv Joseph the writer for giving this a go. I see he won an OBIE, off Broadway award, for best new play with this. That’s probably a bit generous, (or New York is lamentably short of new work which I refuse to believe), but it’s proof that this isn’t the disappointment some have claimed it to be.

Polly Sullivan’s design sees a cliff wall of grey metal filing cabinets punctuated with a raised corridor and spiral staircase down to a dark open space with a couple of spindly birches. This, with some nifty work from Johanna Town’s lighting and Richard Hammarton’s sound, serves as backdrop for an underground KGB/NKVD filing room, an interrogation room, a minicab office, a plush Moscow apartment, a sparsely furnished flat and a forest exterior. The action kicks off in Poland in 1920 during the Russo-Polish war, (a conflict itself near forgotten), where we meet Isaac Emmauilovich Babel played by Ben Caplin and Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov played by David Birrell. Both actors are superb by the way.

Now Babel was a writer whose stories about his childhood and this war were initially feted by the Soviet authorities but who was eventually arrested, his work confiscated, and he was executed in 1940. Yezhov was a small man, a party functionary, who drank to excess, but rose to become a favourite of Stalin and head of the NKVD through the Great Purge. Eventually though he fell foul of Stalin, his wife Yevgenia Solomonovna Feigenburg (Rebecca O’Mara) was arrested, and he too was executed in 1940, despite trying to save his skin by ratting on his friends including Babel. The photos above show how he was famously “non-person-ned” out of history.

The two meet in a forest near Smolensk as Babel is trying to “describe the night” around him. The literal Yezhov has very little of the poet about him, Babel relishes metaphor,  and the two debate the nature of facts and truth. They strike up a firm, if unlikely, friendship. We move forward to 1930s Moscow where we see Babel, whose estranged wife is in Paris, begin his affair with Yevgenia, (which, in reality, had started earlier before she married Yezhov). In the next scene we have whizzed forward to 2010 and Smolensk, where the plane taking the Polish president, his wife and various political and military elite to the commemoration of the Katyn massacre of 1940, has just crashed. Journalist Mariya (Wendy Kweh) is looking to evade the police and enlists the help of Feliks (Joel MacCormack) to made good her escape so she can tell the story.

For those that don’t know the crash is still the subject of conspiracy theories, despite the Polish and Russian authorities concluding it was down to human error, and the Katyn massacre saw the murder of some 22000 Polish military and intelligentsia by the NKVD, although Soviet authorities only finally admitted this in 2010 having previously blamed the Nazis.

We also seen Wendy Kweh as cantankerous Mrs Petrovna and her “daughter” Urzula, played by newcomer Siena Kelly, living in Dresden in 1989. Urzula wants to escape to the West. They have come to the attention of Vova, extravagantly played by Steve John Shepherd, who you might know as one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. We see our putative Putin rewriting his own history in a confrontation with Yezkov, who has “lived on” to control the files of the NKVD/KGB. The real Putin’s early history is somewhat uncertain. Urzula may be the grand-daughter of the illegitimate child of Babel and Yevgenia, who ended up in an asylum thanks to Yezkov, unable to distinguish Babel’s stories from her own memory. Vova also interrogates, unpleasantly, Mariya, mirroring Yezkov’s interrogation of Babel.

And so the stories weave together and what is true and what is fiction becomes ever more uncertain. Babel’s diary, started in 1920, becomes the physical link between the “scenes”. Some have seen parallels in th eplay with other contemporary regimes alongside Russia where the truth is routinely manipulated. Rajiv Joseph is after all an American playwright. There is certainly much to ponder on from Mr Joseph’s particular narratives. and from his mix of fact and fiction, with even some magic realism thrown in, (never be tempted to drink leech soup). History has always been uncertain, from the moment it is “made”. Leaders and states have always sought to confound “truth”. limited only by their shame and intelligence, or lack thereof. The multiplicity of viewpoint that curses our contemporary digital world might seem like it has “never been as bad as this” but it has, as this century of Russian “history”, shows us. People lie. History is rewritten. Truth is fiction and fiction truth where only art might be trusted. The scale of Russia’s current strategy of disinformation may be exaggerated by technology but it certainly isn’t novel.

We thought that Rajiv Joseph’s text and Lisa Spirling’s (AD of Theatre 503) unhurried direction turned into an invigorating display of these “realities”. The cast all seem to have adopted a slightly forced quality in their delivery, which is though entirely consistent with the structure of the play and the world it inhabits. The “workshopped” construction, this version is different from its NYC cousin, does sometimes mean the pace eases ever so slightly, and the play is, perforce, disjointed, but the rewards more than justify this. (I am much happier saying this about Describe the Night than Maly Theatre’s Life and Fate, a similar dramatic exploration of Russian history). There is dark humour throughout. I can imagine a more fleet-footed production, (Stoppard and Kushner, also writers who relish the interplay of ideas and theatre, similarly need momentum), but the play is already asking a fair bit from its audience, (there is definitely a case for reading the excellent HT programme in advance), so a less stagey approach might risk confusion.

For the moment though this is well worth the effort. There are a few performances left at the HT but I have a feeling this will come back in some form or other and will be a “grower” whose reputation will grow with time. Not everything is what it initially seems maybe.

PS. The foyer of the HT contains some of the material from David King’s splendid collection of Soviet graphic art and photographs which formed the backbone of the recent excellent Tate Modern exhibition. There are a few links below to reviews of other cultural events that plough a similar furrow. Treat yourself.

Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern review ****

Life and Fate at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at Tate Modern review ****

The War Has Not Yet Started at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

The Death of Stalin film review ****

Russian Art at the Royal Academy review ****