Ghosts (2015)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on GHOSTS at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 12.10.15.
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4 stars ****

THE PROGRAMME says that the play is Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, in a new version by young ex-Arches playwright Megan Barker. In truth, though, Barker’s bold new work – commissioned and directed by the Tron’s Andy Arnold – involves such a complete re-writing of the text that it almost seems as much a new play as, say, David Greig’s The Architect, loosely based on Ibsen’s Master Builder. In Ibsen’s Ghosts, first seen in 1883, he famously and scandalously sought to expose the sexual hypocrisy of bourgeois society by showing a wealthy widow, Mrs. Alving, striving to do some good with the money left by her corrupt and promiscuous husband, while her son, Oswald, is destroyed by venereal disease inherited from his father.

In Barker’s version, though, set in the north of Scotland now, the son Oswald moves centre stage, introducing each act in monologue, and brooding on two symbolic figures – a stag he has just killed, and a strange boy he befriended as a child – who conjure up his own inheritance of suicidal mental disturbance, following an early experience of sexual abuse.

What Barker is trying to do, in other words, is to combine the outline of Ibsen’s plot with a 21st century meditation on historic sex abuse, and on the lengths to which some establishment figures will go to conceal and perpetuate these crimes; and it has to be said that the the effort to shift the narrative in that direction often pulls the play well out of shape. It confuses our view of the late Captain Alving, turns Alison Peebles’s powerful Mrs. Alving from a troubled female protagonist into a something of a stereotyped bad mother, and makes the subsidiary male characters, Manders and Engstrand, more evil and criminal than merely conventional and weak.

For all its confusions, though, this remains a brave and interesting experiment with Ibsen’s narrative, featuring strong performances not only from Alison Peebles as Mrs Alving, but from Scarlett Mack as her assistant Regina, John Hogg as Oswald, and Laurie Ventry and Billy Riddoch as Manders and Engstrand. And with a fine set, lighting and sound evoking both the cold modern house that has replaced the old Alving mansion, and the landscape beyond it, this troubling new drama conjures up some chilling ghosts of its own; not the same as Ibsen’s, but very closely related, in a way the old man himself might have appreciated, even while reserving the right to tweak a few details into a more satisfactory place.

Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 24 October.

ENDS ENDS

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