'Old Ibsen is as dead as a doornail' wrote the Pall Mall Gazette after the first London performance in 1891 of Ghosts, a Scandinavian in-yer-face shocker. Well, Ibsen is still a household name while the Pall Mall Gazette lies forgotten and yellowing in the archives. Director Richard Eyre, in his programme note for this terrific revival at the Almeida, reminds us of some of the other adjectives thrown at the play: 'revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous...a dirty deed done in public.' And he adds a cautionary reminder that the first critical response to Edward Bond's Saved in 1965 and to Sarah Kane's Blasted 30 years later was remarkably similar.
So what's so good about Ibsen? This is a question I never bothered to ask myself until I belatedly learned to appreciate his plays about a decade ago. I think it was the famous Almeida production of Hedda Gabler which landed Eve Best an Olivier award, or it may have been Trevor Nunn's An Enemy of the People at the National. Until then I had only seen Peer Gynt in a production at the Young Vic with Alex Jennings, from which I beat a retreat at the interval, feeling that Ibsen wasn't my cup of tea. Now it's fair to say I'm a convert; I've seen John Gabriel Borkman (Paul Scofield's last appearance at the National), Pillars of the Community directed by Marianne Elliott, The Wild Duck at the Donmar, A Doll's House with Hattie Morahan as Nora, and another compelling production of Hedda Gabler with Sheridan Smith. There are still a few Ibsen plays I haven't seen, but I am sure I will get round to them eventually. The key thing is that I know they'll be worth seeing, though I still have reservations about Peer Gynt, which in the immortal words of Billy Russell's Rita, is best staged on the radio.
It was RIchard Eyre who directed Eve Best in Hedda Gabler, and now he's back at the Almeida with another magical interpretation, using his own version of the play. Tt runs straight through without an interval in well under two hours, which gives the story an unusual degree of paciness. I'm not sure whether he's made cuts to any of the three acts, but this version moves with unusual speed towards its climax, with Mrs Alving's son Oswald disintegrating before our eyes on the sofa in his mother's arms, struck down by hereditary syphilis.
Euthanasia, incest, venereal disease, adultery -- this is the ultimate skeletons-in-a-cupboard play. The 19th century theatre loved these skeletons but Ibsen's use of them rises above standard melodrama because of the believable complexity of his characters and the way he integrates the backstory with the present, while sneaking a glimpse into the future. Mrs Alving, for example, is a terrible mother and wasn't a very good wife to her philandering husband, but neither is she a complete monster. Lesley Manville conveys this ambiguity perfectly; her free-thinking views draw the sympathy of a 2013 audience quite easily, but her deviousness, her neglect of her son and her ability to cover up the truth make us hesitate.
Pastor Manders, on the other hand... Played by the marvellous Will Keen, he is one of the most unsavoury priests I've ever seen set foot on stage. I remember seeing Keen in a Cheek By Jowl production of The Changeling a few years ago, in the role of the sinister de Flores. There's nobody who does sinister quite as well, and in this play he's just riveting. I couldn't take my eyes off him all through the long scene in Act One with Mrs Alving. Rather than hectoring religious pomposity, Keen's pastor delivers his hypocritical poison with a deceptive gentleness. He's conversational, until suddenly roused to anger. Keen acts the part with his whole body, in particular with his hands, which are extraordinarily expressive in their movements. This is a man who could put his hands together to say a prayer, then use them to strangle someone without missing a beat.
There's a lot of darkness in this play, suggestively brought home to us by Peter Mumford's lighting and Tim Hatley's design. The other characters are beautifully played by Charlene McKenna (Regina), Brian McCardie (Engstrand) and Jack Lowden (Oswald). Ibsen, I'm happy to say, is not dead as a doornail -- he is alive and well and living in Islington. Perhaps the standard of London theatre is now so high that we take revivals of this quality a bit too much for granted. We shouldn't.