JOYCE MCMILLAN on GHOSTS at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, CHICAGO at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, and MUSEUM OF DREAMS (TAG at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow) for Scotsman Arts, 21.5.09
Ghosts 4 stars ****
Chicago 4 stars ****
Museum Of Dreams ****
NOT MANY PEOPLE EVER GET to know this: but sex is one of the great driving forces of the work of Henrik Ibsen, that supposedly gloomy old titan of Nordic drama. At the age of 40 or so, he completed his great epic dramatic poem Peer Gynt, about a young man on the rampage gradually becoming an old man full of yearning and regret; and I doubt whether there has ever been a finer stage production of that famously impossible text than Dominic Hill’s brilliant 2007 version for Dundee Rep and the NTS, now about to return to Scotland for a major tour.
After Peer Gynt, though, the focus of Ibsen’s drama shifted inexorably towards a series of great female heroes and protagonists, from Nora in A Doll’s House to Hedda Gabler. And in no play is that fascination with women, and their matching struggle for fulfilment, more obvious than in his fiercely controversial 1881 play Ghosts, in which he mounts a ruthless assault on the sexual hypocrisy of a society in which the lives of women and young people could be devastated by the private immorality of men whose public reputations remained high, and unblemished.
Helene Alving, the heoine of Ghosts, is a woman who has married the wrong man when very young, who has been rejected for conventional reasons by the man she truly wants, and who has returned to her libertine husband and borne him a son she adores, only to find in middle life that this son is dying of the congenital syphilis he inherited from his father. As she prepares to preside over the opening of an orphanage named in her husband’s memory, her inner conflict between convention and rebellion reaches a ferocious crisis-point; and as a strong woman blamed by everyone for daring to survive what she has suffered, she is left with absolutely nothing.
Jeremy Raison’s new production of Ghosts for the Citizens’ Theatre is anything but subtle; it treats the play not as a sombre slide into tragedy, but as a fierce comic satire against the prudery, misogyny and hypocrisy of provincial Norwegian life, that crashes at the end into a tableau of extreme misery. It’s a high-risk strategy, in which the actors walk a constant tightrope between blazing melodramatic energy and absurd self-parody. Worse than that, with the usual male purblindness to the driving sexuality and tragically wasted potential of Mrs. Alving’s feeling for Pastor Manders, the man she once loved, Jeremy Raison allows Kevin McMonagle to play him as a foolish old buffoon, no more sexually attractive than the sofa on which he sits.
For all that, though, Raison’s irreverent approach to the play, supported by Amelia Bullmore’s spare and excellent modern version of the text, generates a fierce and questioning energy, not least through Maureen Beattie’s towering performance as Mrs. Alving, a middle-aged woman still bursting with inconvenient sensual life and intellectual restlessness. Jason Southgate’s set, evoking a bleached-wood Norwegian garden room, is beautifully lit by Charles Balfour to conjure up fierce Nordic alternations between radiant sunlight and rain-drenched gloom; and Elspeth Brodie and Steven Robertson light up the stage, as the young people so closely bound together, by their inheritance of secrets and lies, that the happiness they seek can never be theirs.
There’s not much question of misogyny in the story of Chicago, the great Kander and Ebb musical now on its umpteenth tour of Britain, and still drawing capacity crowds to the Playhouse. The women in this famous fantasy-cabaret of a show are all so drop-dead gorgeous that – in alliance with their cynical celebrity lawyer, Billy Flynn – they can play the compromised justice system of 1920’s Chicago like a bar-room piano, and literally get away with murder.
But if this stylish fishnets-and-bowler-hat show is familiar now, the version on stage at the Playhouse this week delivers this show’s great roster of songs with a rare and pitch-perfect punch. Jimmy Osmond makes a rotund but effective Billy Flynn, deploying a fine, tuneful voice. And Emma Barton – best known to the world as Honey Mitchell in Eastenders – makes a truly memorable Roxie Hart, dancing like a dream, and radiating a sense of intelligence and irony that truly matches the mood of the show, along with the the kind of thousand-watt star quality that makes even a huge theatre like the Playhouse seem intimate, exciting, and warm.
True love certainly conquers all, though, in TAG’s new children’s show Museum Of Dreams, presented in a gorgeous little hexagonal space specially created in the main rehearsal room of the Citizens’ Theatre. A curtain opens, and an excited audience of around twenty children are welcomed by a middle-aged caretaker (Keith MacPherson) who shows off his five exhibits, displayed in glowing old-fashioned glass cases around the walls. There’s a chair, a violin and banjo, a pair of tap shoes, an old-fashioned gramophone, and a mysterious box; and after the keeper nods off to sleep, a puppet girl in a yellow dress emerges from the box, and dreams and reality – puppet world and real world – begin to merge in ever more exciting and magical ways.
Somewhere at the heart of this lovely show, there’s a metaphor about friends or lovers finding one another despite coming from very different worlds. But whatever you make of the slightly sentimental happy ending, Ailie Cohen and Guy Hollands’s production is an absolutely enchanting magic toy-box of a show, a child’s dream come true; and it makes a brilliant curtain-raiser to next week’s Imaginate children’s festival in Edinburgh, where it plays at the Brunton as part of the usual thrilling international programme for audiences under 16.
Ghosts at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 30 May. Chicago at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 23 May. Museum Of Dreams at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 26 May, and at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 28 May – 1 June.