The ghosts of the past continue to haunt Helene Alving (Lesley Manville) in Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts, currently receiving a first-rate revival at BAM thanks to director-adaptor Richard Eyre, who first mounted this production at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2013 and on the West End later that year. Though Helene Alving’s outwardly charming but feckless husband has been dead nearly ten years and she’s working with a local pastor (Will Keen) to build an orphanage in his name, her memories of their time together have left a dark mark on her life and her relationship with her son Oswald, an intermittent painter whose own secrets threaten to tear apart the Alving home despite Helene’s efforts to redeem the family name.
Ghosts serves as a thrilling follow-up to last year’s A Doll’s House at BAM, another London transfer (that production, starring a luminous Hattie Morahan, came from the Young Vic), proving that Ibsen’s plays can still capture audiences’ imagination today. Though symbolism occasionally threatens to overburden his plays, Ghosts included, Manville and Eyre, as director, keep this production sharply focused and tightly paced.
Tim Hatley’s brilliant set, which features front and back rooms separated by a translucent wall, supports the play’s obsession with thinly veiled secrets. One of Helene’s most vivid memories of her husband’s transgressions came just through the doorway between the house’s living room, where most of the play’s action takes place, and the dining room upstage, which is always seen through a kind of haze. She remembers her husband’s voice and the voice of their maid. “I can still hear them,” she tells Pastor Manders.
In fact, the voices of the past are conjured by the voices of those in Helene’s present; when her son Oswald begins flirting with her current maid, Regina Engstrand, her past miseries come back all at once to torment her in ways she never expected (to give away much more about the plot’s twists and turns would amount to spoilers).
Eyre’s lucid adaptation of the play is well served by Manville, whose performance won her an Olivier Award in 2014, and who deftly carries off the play’s most rip-roaring passages, especially her powerhouse monologue midway through the play. For Helene, it’s not just people from the past that haunt her, it’s the ideas of the past as well, “dead ideas, dead customs, dead morals. They hang around us and we can’t get away from them. Even when I’m reading a newspaper I can see the ghosts looming out between the lines of newsprint.”
Though Manville is reason enough to see this production of Ghosts, her cast mates are uniformly excellent, especially Will Keen as Pastor Manders and Billy Howle as Oswald. Howle, tasked with the challenge of unraveling on stage over the course of the play’s hour-and-a-half run time, manages to create a complete, and ultimately moving, portrait of a young man unwittingly undone by his own past and by his parents.
Eyre’s taut production races toward its end at a hare’s clip, Peter Mumford’s expert lighting bathing the play’s final scenes in a red-orange glow that perfectly underscores Ibsen’s menacing conclusion. No matter what she does, Manville’s Helene can’t escape the inevitable; nor can we as audience members help but be transfixed by the glow of this production, illuminated both by the smoldering embers of the past and the fire that, at present, portends its characters’ destruction.