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Ghosts: Emotional authenticity is the primary driver of this understated production

Theatre: Mark O’Rowe’s scrupulously naturalistic dialogue balances plot’s tendency towards melodrama


Abbey Theatre

Henrik Ibsen’s 1881 drama neatly encapsulates some of the pressing issues of 19th-century society: the conflict between church control and secular structures; middle-class morality and bohemian free expression; the increasing divide between rural and urban life. Mark O’Rowe’s lucid new version for Landmark Productions and the Abbey Theatre allows the original setting to stand. Emotional authenticity is the primary driver of the understated production, and the scrupulously naturalistic dialogue O’Rowe has crafted for its expression is a key factor in achieving this aim, subtly balancing the plot’s tendency towards melodrama, while allowing the actors to focus less on what they are saying to each other than what they mean by speaking at all.

Layers of revelation offer the three-act play structure. Oswald (Callam Lynch) has returned home from Paris for the opening of a charitable orphanage in his father’s name. His mother Mrs Alving (Cathy Belton) has invited Pastor Manders (Declan Conlon) to deal with the paperwork, and the orphanage’s project manager Engstrand (Lorcan Cranitch), nominal father of housemaid Regina (Simone Collins), wants the pastor to bless the building before the ceremony the following day. Apart from Regina, each of these characters is hiding something significant from their past. By the final act, they will have divested themselves of their secrets, and learned a lesson about life from their own impulse to protect their sense of self and reputation.

Francis O’Connor’s airy conservatory set allows the characters to give physical expression to the emotional distance between them. As Mrs Alving, Cathy Belton moves cautiously towards her son as the acts progress, balancing a delicate dignity with desperation in her attempts to make herself really known to him. As director, O’Rowe does not rush the final, distressing, climactic scene, allowing Lynch the space for convincing physical and psychological transformation. If this all sounds relentlessly weighty and fraught, Cranitch’s servile Engstrand and Conlon’s upright, uptight Manders offer surprising comic relief; Manders’ clerical hypocrisy resonating with particular conviction in post-Catholic 21st century Ireland.

However, it would do this quietly confident production a disservice to try to force contemporary relevance upon it. What is far more interesting in Ghosts is the exposure of the lengths that people will go to defend their personal choices. If Mrs Alving’s insistence on taking the blame for her husband’s sins seems like another self-degradation, it can also be seen as another layer of self-protection: a story more palatable than the truth.


Runs at the Abbey Theatre until May 13th

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer