NT trail leads to Ghosts – in more ways than one

On the day that the world (well BBC2 anyway) celebrated 50 years of the National Theatre it seemed right to combine a trip to the National Theatre trail (by Metro Boulot Dodo) with a visit to former NT artistic director Richard Eyres production of Ghosts at the Almeida.

wpid-wp-164266.jpg wpid-wp-197341.jpgThe trail is in effect a mini game which sees you criss crossing the Nationals foyers and public spaces solving the clues which enable you to open the doors to the National Theatres vault. The vault is appropriately located behind the box office, which as every artistic and executive director knows is the source of real power in every theatre, though these days they tend not to be run by `terrifyong old trouts`

That particular quote comes from Simon Callow, just one of the many familiar voices which feature in the trail, and points to the real joy of the piece. In effect the game is an utterly user friendly way of sharing the history and archive of the national, made all the more poignant and meaningful by being in the location itself. Five listening stations (a safe, a cello case, a writers desk, suitcases and a flight case) are all accompanied by archive materials and an audio track. Decade by decade you relive the highs and lows of the venue, in our case quite literally as crews set up for that evenings celebrations around us. Lawrence Olivier’s grand plan, Peter Halls table top protest against swingeing cuts, Judi Dench as Cleopatra, Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett describing what his mother thought of playwrighting `an activity that was mysterious and out of reach`..its all there but the real gems come when you enter the vault.

wpid-wp-15966.jpgIt would be far too much of a spoiler to mention all the vaults secrets, but let’s just say the naked rambler would have enjoyed one of the stories!

The trail is just one part of a multi faceted exhibition which fill the foyer spaces and which all celebrate the work of this some times celebrated, some times controversial theatrical powerhouse. Well worth an hour or so of your time.

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Needless to say Richard Eyre`s time at the National is well documented both in #nttrail and in the exhibition, I particularly enjoyed his briefing to the late, brilliant Ken Campbell. I suspect Campbell would have enjoyed the playful humour of the trail.

Over at the Almeida though Eyre is dealing with much more serious stuff.

At just over 90 minutes straight through his production of  Ghosts allows Ibsen`s final play to keep turning the psychological screw. As an audience member you are allowed literally no respite from the revelations, whilst through it all the benign features of Captain Alving stare down – ever present, wordlessly surveying his legacy.

Tim Hartley’s steely set gives the action a coldness from the start, a chill that contrasts with Mrs Alvings (Lesley Manville) early exuberance. Those walls also serve to reflect the action, turning a mirror on the characters and effectively revealing the truths that the houses residents and visitors either hide or choose to deny. They are transparent too, enhancing the feeling that every secret will, in time, be outed. Rain falls, doors slam and everywhere there is an eery sense of tension and foreboding – right from the moment Jacob (Brian McCardie)causes Regina (Charlene McKenna) to drop her tray.

ghosts 1Freed by her husband’s death Mrs Alving has thrown herself into a philanthropic project, the building of an orphanage. But her exuberance is cut short by her second rejection (the first being a year after her marriage) at the hands of Pastor Manders (Will Keen). Whilst Manders `selfcontrol` meant he had effectively surpressed his feelings Manville gives us an Alving for whom abstinence has clearly made the heart grow stronger! Manders was her route to forgetting the lies of the past and to securing some joy in the future. Instead his rejection sets in train a series of events and revelations which leaves Mrs Alving with nothing but the rising sun and a rain free day. In the space of 24 hours not only has she lost her love, but also her son Oswald ( Jack Lowden) and her project, the orphanage.

ghosts 2Right at the fore of this production is a simple question….when is the right thing to do, not the right thing to do. The ever so controlled, stiff and almost clipped Manders has spent his life striving to do the right thing according to the prevailing mood of society. By the end of the play he is forced to graciously accept Engstrands sacrificial deceit. Without words Keen shows us Manders internal dialogue, that in accepting the inevitable he becomes a broken man, he realises his own hypocrisy. Mrs Alving, whose flayling, skittish attempts throughout her life to do the right thing also finds herself forced to face up to her own actions. The first hint is when history seemingly repeats itself (as Oswald takes up with the maid, Regina), and then later as Regina, newly empowered but shot through with bitterness challenges Alvings treatment of her. Finally she is forced to face up to the possibility that by attempting to protect Oswald she has inadvertently done the opposite. The pill Oswald asks his mother to administer has in truth been administered much, much earlier.

I’d first seen Ghosts in a production at West Yorkshire Playhouse with Rosemary Leech as Mrs Alving and Christopher Darling as Oswald. Then, With the AIDS epidemic all over the news, the play had a chilling resonance. In Eyre’s production the focus is broader. The choices made by Alving and Manders, both now and then,  remain sharp in your thoughts, Manders blind belief in the church equally so. Here it’s not just Oswald whose body has gone bad, but a seemingly upstanding household, and beyond those transparent walls  a society too that’s gone rotten. And that’s where Eyres intense and harshly poetic production really chills .

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