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.

The Remains of the Day at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre review *****

The Remains of the Day

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, 13th April 2019

Right all you good citizens of Derby, Salisbury, Cambridge and Bristol. There is still time for you to book tickets to see this excellent adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s celebrated novel The Remains of the Day. A very well crafted script by Barney Norris, (just the fellow to write pensive studies of “Englishness” based on his previous work), in an excellent production from one of our premier touring companies Out of Joint, thoughtfully directed by Christopher Haydon, (latterly of the Gate Theatre), with a pair of sparkling central performances from Stephen Boxer and Niamh Cusack.

Now the Tourist has never been much good at reading. Nothing ever seems to sink in without repeated exposure. Especially with fiction. And especially with fiction he read in his youth. A vague recollection of the big picture, a few specific episodes and a general “I like that author”. Not like the SO who can trot out plot, character, meaning, style, context, like an A* student even for things she read decades ago. Maybe this low level intimidation is what stops the Tourist picking up a book except when on hols. That and spending too much time at the theatre and writing this stupid f*cking blog.

Anyway you probably. like the Tourist. know this work more from the 1993 Merchant-Ivory film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson as Stevens and Kenton, both quietly upstaged by Peter Vaughan as Stevens Senior. Nominated for 8 Oscars, won none. Mind you that was the year the Academy rewarded Spielberg for Schindler’s List. Fair dos. I see that one Harold Pinter wrote an original screenplay for the film when Mike Nichols was slated to direct. Bits of Harold’s work made it to the end but he removed himself from the credits. Might have been a very different film with him and Mr Nichols in the driving seat.

Instead I remember the central, unrequited, relationship between the stiff Hopkins and the droll Thompson, the look and feel of the thing, (Merchant-Ivory being allowed to film in any toff’s house at the time such was their fame), and the almost elegiac take on the history under examination, the 1950’s and the 1930’s. Yes the politics were there but not as sharply delineated as in this play. Class, deference, knowing one’s place, belief in the wisdom of the elite, are common to both treatments but I was far more struck in this treatment by the desire of many in the aristocratic class in the 1930’s to broker a deal with Hitler, to appease, than I was in the film. And specifically the reasons why, the guilt at having inflicted so much economic misery on Germany post First World War, as well as the memory of the human carnage of that war, and, of course their anti-semitism, which motivated them to pursue this course.

It may just be that, like my reading of the book, I just don’t remember the film very well. Which is salient given that The Remains of the Day is a memory book/film/play. Or maybe more specifically a memory of a history, personal and political, book/film/play. To solve the “problem” of butler Stevens remembering the events at Darlington Hall in the run up to the Second World War, (as he undertakes the road trip in 1958 to pay the visit to the ex-housekeeper, Miss Kenton, prompted by her letter), the film makes generous use of flashbacks. And a cast of thousands.

Well maybe not quite but tons of extras and actors of the calibre of James Fox, Christopher Reeve, Hugh Grant, Michael Lonsdale and Tim Pigott-Smith to fill all the named characters, (trust me, a lot of people found their way to Darlington Hall). Even the minor parts are filled by the likes of Ben Chaplin, Patrick Godfrey, Peter Eyre, Pip Torrens and, the go-to actor for Germans in British films, Wolf Kahler. Blimey even a young Lena Headey, Cersei in you know what, gets a look in. Basically if you could do plummy or gor-blimey, and you weren’t engaged elsewhere, you got a part in the film.

No such technology of budget for Out of Joint and Messrs Haydon and Norris. So a fair bit of character pruning, some adroit exposition to incorporate those written out, and extensive doubling. But this is not just any old “exit Act 1, turn up as someone else in Act 2 with new costume and wig” stagecraft. This is seamlessly executed, on stage choreography, a hat, a coat, a pipe, to turn a cast the cast of 8 into the staff and guests of pre war Darlington Hall and the locals Stevens meets on his pint-sized odyssey of self-discovery. This means that the ghosts of the past are always present. Very clever and very easy to follow.

Stevens devotion to duty even in the face of the shocking demand by Lord Darlington to sack the two Jewish maids, Kenton teasing Stevens about his book, Stevens carrying on his duties even as his father dies and Mme Dupont, (a gender change to accommodate the casting pyrotechnics), whinges about her feet, Reginald’s increasing awareness of what his godfather is up to, Stevens disowning the past in his conversations with Dr Carlisle, the mocking Stevens is forced to undergo from “Sir David” the composite collaborator with Lord D, the radical conservatism, or conservative radicalism, espoused by everyman Morgan in the pub and, of course, the extraordinarily moving scenes between Kenton, or Mrs Benn later on, and Stevens, as the happiness they might might have had slips through their fingers. You flipping noodle Stevens.

All of these scenes are memorable, providing plenty of minor key drama, but the best things about the play are the performances of Mr Boxer and Ms Cusack. I’ll stick my neck out here and say that for me, and remember this is based on my faulty memory, they capture the essence of Stevens and Kenton more that Hopkins and Thompson in the film. The ten year age gap between these actors seems more convincing than the 20 years of the film. Mr Boxer seems to me to bring out more of the interior life of Stevens, the way he buries the emotions that he plainly has in the cause of maintaining the dignified exterior he believes is required of him, the way he is puzzled by, but still craves, Miss Kenton’s attention. Ms Cusack seems more playful as Kenton, holding back the regret until the very end. the structure of the play lends more prominence to the conversations in the pub and the way this changes Stevens’s perspective.

The directness of the political dilemma, and its flawed morality, is far more pointed here than in the film. And the reliability of Steven’s recollection is more nuanced as in the book, (yes I took a quick peep again whilst writing this). In fact generally Mr Norris seems to capture the essence of the book in a, er, more reliable way that the period-drama aesthetic of the film does.

The rest of the cast step up. Miles Richardson captures the naivety, in life as well as politics, of Lord Darlington and the middle class bonhomie of Dr Carlisle. Sadie Shimmin offers us an uncomplicated pub host in Mrs Taylor alongside the hauteur of fascist sympathiser Mme Dupont. Edward Franklin warms to his task as the bespectacled, conscientious godson Reginald, (drawn from the film not the book), Patrick Toomey is the arrogant American politician Lewis (and, I think Farraday, Steven’s current employer) and Pip Donaghy marks out Stevens Senior decline. Top marks to Stephen Critchlow though as he he shifts from Morgan to the real “villain” of the piece the anti-semitic Sir David.

I see a lot of plays but this is one of the more satisfying I have seen so far this year. “Knowing” the content helps of course, and, from a personal geographical perspective a hop to Guildford, and the fine design and accumulated history of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, was no inconvenience. I get that Out of Joint rightly values its touring credentials and I am grateful to the Royal and Derngate, (on my list to visit), and the Oxford Playhouse for co-commissioning Barney Norris’s script. But I am stunned that this hasn’t secured, as far as I know, secured a berth in London.

The familiar story, the quality of the acting, the script and the production, (Lily Arnold’s set is another stand-out as is Elena Pena’s sound design), the themes it explores and their contemporary echoes – the dangers of passivity and nostalgia – all would suggest to me that this would pack them in in a mid sized West End venue. There is plenty for the customary theatre demographic to enjoy, (they certainly did on this Saturday afternoon), but, with the right tone, I reckon some younger folk could be persuaded. I know that Out of Joint’s last major production, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, had a false start, understandably, before eventually gathering plaudits as the Royal Court but most of the rest of their historical efforts have popped up in the capital. This, whilst still posing some thorny questions, looks to be a far more commercial proposition than many of those predecessors.

Barney Norris plainly says that “the play must be unlike the book or the film or it shouldn’t exist” in the programme. Fair dos. But, whilst its structure and perspective match his manifesto, there is more than enough of both earlier manifestations to justify your attendance should you know them.

Over to you nice people at ATG.