Aisle View: Ghosts at BAM

Lesley Manville in Ibsen's Ghosts. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Dedicated theatergoers who try to see the best of the best are hereby alerted, during this ridiculously overloaded April, to make a quick detour to Brooklyn. Ibsen's powerful Ghosts is the play; director Richard Eyre provides an altogether gripping production; and Lesley Manville's portrayal as Helene Alving makes for indispensable viewing. Given that this is a brief engagement of only twenty-nine performances at the BAM Harvey Theater, it will necessarily reach a limited audience. Connoisseurs of fine acting will do themselves a favor and be part of that audience.

The excellence begins with Eyre's adaptation, which streamlines the play--it flies by in an intermissionless ninety minutes--and freshens what in starchier translations can seem archaic. This production originated at the Almeida Theatre in Islington in the fall of 2013. It transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in the West End last winter, where it won Olivier Awards for Manville and as Best Revival.

Eyre has contrived with set designer Tim Hatley to stage the play in three spaces: a living room with translucent panels backed by a full dining room, behind which is a porch which in turn looks out on the Norwegian vista. Thus, the downstage players can observe what is happening inside; when Helene overhears Oswald and Regina repeating the seduction of her mother by his father, she--and we--"see" them as translucent ghosts. By the final scene of the play, of course, the ghosts of the past are downstage front and center in all-too-clear view. Eyre--formerly director of the National Theatre, more recently the director of the London/Broadway musical Mary Poppins--also has masterful lighting from Peter Mumford, both in the shadows and in a startlingly stunning orange fantasia of deathbed daybreak.

Manville is best known for her screen career, notably eight films with writer/director Mike Leigh (including the role of Kitty Gilbert in his 1999 Gilbert & Sullivan film, "Topsy-Turvy"). The actress began on stage with the Royal Court and the RSC; her only prior New York appearance was in the original cast of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in 1982.

The star is well supported. Will Keen is highly effective as the moralizing but ultimately morally-weak Pastor Manders (even if he does look disconcertingly like David Hyde Pierce). Brian McCardie is suitably blustery as the hired man, Jacob. Charlene McKenna, the only actor other than Manville who appeared in both the Almeida and West End productions, does even better as Regina. She patiently dishes up exposition as the ornamental housemaid, but then--once her parentage is revealed--stands up to, and forcefully combats, Helene.
Billy Howle and Lesley Manville in Ibsen's Ghosts. Photo: Stephanie Berger
The one newcomer to the cast is Billy Howle, as Oswald. His elite-artist sophistication makes way to fear, desperation and finally outright horror; the closing scene between him and his mother is terrible, in the best sense of the world. Howle's syphilitic attack and Manville's frozen terror as she contemplates the vial of morphine is likely to stay with you.

Adaptor/director Eyre and his supporting players make this a production to be reckoned with, but it is Manville who puts this Ghosts on its own rarefied plateau. Broadway audiences have this season seen sterling performances from Carey Mulligan (in Skylight), Ruth Wilson (in Constellations) and Helen Mirren (in The Audience). No need for comparisons, but Lesley Manville in Ghosts is simply not to be missed.
Ibsen's Ghosts, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre, opened April 12, 2015 and continues through May 3 at BAM Harvey Theater