“Ghosts” gets the full ghost story treatment in Robin Phillips’ eye-rolling revival of Ibsen’s 1891 play, which is so busy cueing a response from the audience that it often makes little inherent sense.
There’s probably not a playwright as prone to insinuation and suggestiveness as Ibsen, where seemingly the idlest remark functions as an emotional landmine that gets detonated an act or two later. But is that any reason to slow sentences down, shrouding most of them in invisible italics that soon become as apparent as the rain-streaked, gray Norway here engulfing the characters? It’s difficult to fathom whether Phillips was actively seeking to rethink the play — much as a conductor might deliberately tackle a score off-tempo — or merely dumbing it down by making Ibsen’s classic an upmarket “Dark Shadows” for the tourist trade.
Whatever the reason, you feel by play’s end for poor, sickly Oswald — the young artist on the rebound from Paris whose “carelessness” has done him in — and not only because he has contracted syphilis. (The disease, interestingly, is never named.) Amid a milieu in which no one speaks naturally, actor Martin Hutson at least sounds as if he belongs to the real world. Approaching death, his Oswald possesses real life, whereas it’s the spectral speech rhythms of the others that really give you the spooks. (Shame, however, about Hutson’s risibly floppy-haired, foppish physical demeanor.)
“Ghosts” hardly needs such over-emphasis, having electrified the West End more than a decade ago, with Vanessa Redgrave playing Oswald’s fiercely devoted mother, Mrs. Alving. And Simon Russell Beale made an inestimably moving Oswald in a top-drawer staging from Katie Mitchell at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Pit several seasons back.
But from the first appearance of Robin Soans’ creepy Jakob Engstrand, the lubriciously scheming carpenter, it’s clear that Phillips wants to hint at nothing when he can deliver the heebie-jeebies flat out. Soans’ Engstrand refers so portentously to Pastor Manders, the play’s moralistic zealot (and leading hypocrite), that you find yourself awaiting a clerical Freddy Krueger.
Anthony Andrews’ performance in the role pretty much fulfills that expectation. Cast commendably against matinee idol type, the actor speaks every line so sonorously that his voice seems to be rising up from beneath the floorboards. (My companion wondered whether he was auditioning for some tour around the fjords of “Porgy and Bess.”) There’s a truly spine-tingling emotional gavotte between Manders and Mrs. Alving implicit in a scenario that brilliantly collapses past and present until both form part of some hurtful, ferocious whole. But with Andrews intoning every line about “local opinion,” the actor invites in the melodrama that better productions of the same play keep at bay: He’s so busy offering up subtext that the text itself is diminished. (Richard Harris’ new version isn’t the most subtle one, either.)
Much the same is regrettably true of the Helena Alving of Francesca Annis, an often ravishing performer (she shone as Gertrude to Ralph Fiennes’ Hamlet in 1995) who comes across as distractingly actressy here. True, Mrs. Alving has much from which to recoil, starting with a dissolute (and dead) husband and her similarly plagued son; what’s more, she’s a Nora-esque free spirit stifled by prejudice and convention who hasn’t yet learned how to slam the door. But announcing at the eleventh hour, “gone, everything gone, burned to the ground,” Annis leaves you not so much bleeding for Mrs. Alving as filtering out her breathy vocal technique.
As was true of Phillips’ recent “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Ghosts” is skillfully designed, the sloping walls of Paul Farnsworth’s set bearing down on characters who themselves must navigate a notably raked stage. A sheet of Plexiglas mirrors the actors in somewhat distorted form, with John B. Read’s expert lighting delineating a gloom turned to sun just as the play’s son, Oswald, is giving himself over to darkness. To that extent, “Ghosts” may strike a nerve with a British public starved for sunshine of late, in which case they may be too grateful for the onstage dawn to mind a sadly stagey production.