A CLEANSING FURY FROM THE 1880s
Wipes you out every time, Ibsen’s furious, shocking, violent assault on the cruel decayed conventions of his century’s end. Its indecency – a plot driven by syphilis, prostitution, illegitimacy, female victimhood and religious hypocrisy – capsized his first. “A loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly…. Gross, almost putrid indecorum….an open drain”. The century since has at least understood that in art such drains are vital and contemplation of appalling things sometimes necessary. But this was no self-indulgent modern Sarah-Kanery or Edward-Bondism: it rises to its real greatness in the bitter, clear-eyed author’s truthfulness about human bonds: not only between mother and son but in the dead, thwarted affection between Mrs Alving and the absurd Pastor Manders.
In other words I revere the play, and feared a little that after Richard Eyre’s devastating , taut 100-minute version which last sent me reeling out into the street, I would have misgivings about returning to two acts with Lucy Bailey’s production and a Mike Poulton script. However, Bailey is always good at finding and expressing the violent shocks of any play. And this she does here, from the first moments when in the elegant sea-green set of the decorous Alving home Declan Conlon’s crude dangerous Engstrand hurls his supposed daughter Regina to the floor. She shrinks from his touch. And Poulton’s careful wording, here and later in an aside by Mrs Alving, suggests more strongly than usual yet another “putrid indecorum”; he’s a sexual abuser as well as a bully.
All through, indeed, the physicality of Bailey’s direction serves the play well, right through the taut explanatory scenes between Helen and Pator Manders, to the final moments when Pierro Niel-Mee’s Osvald grapples and begs for a merciful death (“I gave you life!” “Take it back!”). The lighting is expressive, the pretty green darkening to an underwater tone suggesting the monstrosities below the bourgeois surface, then at last lightening with the thin Norwgian sunlight. Light is at the play’s symbolic core, in Helen’s furious “possessed by the decaying spirits of the dead…we are pathetically afraid of the light!”.
James Wilby as Pastor Manders has a famously difficult task. He is both a caricatured absurdity – on discovering Regina’s origin he has the nerve only to worry that it “made a mockery of the sacrament of marriage”, which reminded me oddly of ex-Pope Benedict’s recent essay worrying mostly about the status of the Eucharist when speaking of a raped altar-server. Manders is a booby, a blinkered believer proud of having “crushed the rebellious spirit” in Helen Alving; and yet we have to believe also that he was the friend to whom she once ran for help, and that they shared a thwarted love. Wilby just about achieves this, because despite Manders’ terrible statements he physically exudes a kind of clerically suppressed amiability.
Niel-Mee’s Osvald is strong, too, rising from stiff sullen boyishness to raging terror and helpless pleading. But towering above them all, as she always should, is Mrs Alving. Penny Downie , aquiline and elegant, is the conscience and heart and victim of the play: she needs to convey a passionate heart, questioning moral intelligence, gentleness, terror, anger, quiet observation, and an edge of fond mocking humour, in that extraordinary moment when she sees through Manders yet again, affectionately and without rancour. Penny Downie achieves all this. I would watch it right through again simply to see that performance. If this were a London production and thus eligible, I’d glue myself to Albert Hall to demand that the woman gets an Olivier.
www.royalandderngate.co.uk to 11 May