First published in The Times, Tuesday October 13 2015
Ibsen’s naturalistic social drama was famously described by one early critic as “a loathsome sore unbandaged”. Megan Barker’s modernised version, currently playing at the Tron, attempts to up the ante, opening with a bloody collision with a deer and advancing through a roll call of pathologies – paedophilia, adultery, alcoholism and drug addiction – to the play’s grotesque final scenes. Yet, despite all the violence and profanity on display, the tone achieved in Andy Arnold’s production is more akin to histrionic soap opera than a ghost story with unsettling contemporary resonance.
Barker’s version updates the action to the north of Scotland in the present day. Helen Alving (Alison Peebles), recently returned as a local councillor, seeks to atone for her dead husband’s sexual misbehaviour, depleting the fortune she has inherited by building a children’s home in the grounds of the family estate. Belying this seeming altruism is Helen’s knowledge of the elite paedophile ring formed and participated in by her husband and other local VIPs. The reappearance of her troubled son, Oswald (John Hogg), is the catalyst for these unquiet ghosts to come back from the dead.
Pic: John Johnston
Arnold’s production features the odd arresting visual sequence, courtesy of designer Neil Warmington, and one or two decent performances, but both the direction and Barker’s script labour under the fatal misapprehension that contemporary relevance is achieved by making explicit what was once unstated. Much of the power of Ibsen’s play derives from dramatic irony and the characters’ incomplete understanding of how the burdens of the past continue to impact on the present. In Barker’s version all the secrets come roaring to the surface very early on, with an inevitable dilution of tension.
Where Ibsen gradually ratchets up the atmosphere of dread, the default setting here is one of overwrought melodrama that, in the latter stages, borders on camp. Barker makes a stab at lyricism with a second act monologue in which Oswald revisits a particularly nasty formative episode from his youth, but elsewhere the dialogue is dispiritingly prosaic and leaden with exposition. Rather than extending a despairing sympathy to flawed human beings, the glib nature of the writing robs the characters of redeeming features, leaving fine actors such as Peebles and Scarlett Mack as Helen’s ambitious PA struggling to bring nuance to their performances. In the end, instead of revitalising Ibsen’s themes, this ill-judged reboot renders the whole scenario absurd, leaving you nostalgic for the restraint of the original.