Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 27th November, 2013
Henrik Ibsen’s tragedy was a bit of a flop in its day, but of course I was too young to have seen it back then. At last, English Touring Theatre is bringing this top quality production to the provinces and we get to see what all the commotion was about.
Upcoming artist Osvald has returned to his widowed mother’s home for the summer. Mother is busy preparing to open an orphanage in her late husband’s name to commemorate a decade of him being in the ground. Osvald has an eye on Regina the maid – although his intentions are not wholly romantic… As the action unfolds, family secrets emerge from the shadows. I won’t go into detail but there is a whiff of incest in the air, degenerative disease and assisted suicide – Osvald has inherited more than a propensity for pipe-smoking from his dear old dead dad…
Amazingly, it’s not heavy-going at all. Stephen Unwin directs his own (superb) translation of the Norwegian, allowing brief moments of light among all the clouds. There is warmth and levity in this storm- and doom-laden household, principally from Pip Donaghy’s portrayal of Engstrand, the Santa-bearded workman, remonstrating with daughter Regina (Florence Hall) in Highlands twangs. Patrick Drury makes a commanding Pastor Manders, a cleric who is not as holier-than-thou as he pretends, but the key players are Kelly Hunter as the Widow Alving and Mark Quartley as her ailing son.
These last two are utterly compelling in a powerful denouement, pitched perfectly against the dawning of a new day – Simon Higlett’s set draws from Edvard Munch’s original designs; the back wall is dominated by an enormous picture window – we watch the weather over the mountains; clouds roll, rain falls… and ultimately the sun comes up to dazzle us as dark truths are brought into the light.
Ibsen was a forerunner in the movement from melodrama to Naturalism in 19th century theatre, and while there is something of the Greek tragedies in this piece, something a little Oedipussy in the central relationship, the play reminds us of Ibsen’s importance and brilliance.