The Ghost Sonata, Rose Playhouse

A mysterious old man manipulates a poor student, then a wealthy colonel. A woman – or is she a parrot? – lives in a wardrobe. A beautiful, sick daughter always stays indoors. Servants control their masters. There is discussion of past love affairs, betrayal, and deceit. Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata is inhabited by a cast of damaged, dysfunctional characters drawn to a house that rots them all from the inside. Director Charlotte Ive has adapted the original to suit a small cast and stage at The Rose on Bankside with good intuition for creating mystery without losing momentum. Though I am unfamiliar with Strindberg’s script, Ive seems to have made some edits but keeps the crux of the story, all which is made clear at the end. There are some issues, but this is a lovely intimate piece of theatre with strong directorial choices that mostly support the performance, and an able, predominantly female, cast.

They story is slow to develop, but does so with deliberating measure, managing to escape stagnation. The start is somewhat unclear: the initial location is vague, as is why two characters meeting for the first time are in what is an obviously engineered situation. These factors enhance the mysterious aspect of the story, but do not foster understanding. Foss Shepherd is Jacob Hummel, an 80-year-old, chatting to female Charley Willow who plays young male student Arkenholtz. Willow’s gender is not particularly well disguised, and a less convincing boy than she is as the old colonel. Hummel clearly wants something from Arkenholtz, but what and why is only revealed later. Shepherd and Willow’s performances have enough tension and energy to keep the story moving; lesser talent would cause the action to stall.

Making up the rest of the cast are Sophie Lakely and Olivia Meguer, who play the rest of the roles. Meguer as the revolting chef who stuffs the family full of food drained of nutrients is particularly fun to watch. Lakely as the supposedly ill daughter never quite connects with Willow’s student, though her conviction is genuine. They also play disembodied ghosts voiced from the audience or the edge of the stage. Shepherd bends and twists his way through his performance as Hummel, though I wonder why Ive did not cast an older man. Though with this run starting the same time as Edinburgh Fringe and Camden Fringe, perhaps the older male fringe actors were otherwise engaged.

The design is provincial and pretty with flower garlands canopied over the stage, drawing attention away from the heavy gray concrete that forms the theatre’s walls and ceiling. A small table, jug and basin and other items add period signposts without taking up too much space. The costumes are simple, but in keeping with the time period. Ive chose not to use the entire site, with the exception of an unlit dancing couple at the far side of the pool that preserves the old Rose’s foundations. For a production that is adapted to The Rose, neglecting this part of the venue raises a question: what then makes the Rose so vital to this production?

This is a production that requires patience and acceptance from its audience. The performances are worthy of attention as the plot gently and almost imperceptibly unfolds. The characters switch between expressionism and naturalism without fanfare; very little information is actually revealed until the end. The language is evocative of broken people in a time long ago who don’t quite manage to cope with life as they should and is a wonderful, odd production despite its shortcomings.

NOTE: The performance reviewed was a preview performance.

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