Lesley Manville on Giving "The Performance of Her Life" in Ibsen's Ghosts

Is it hard to live up to a declaration like that? The Olivier Award-winning actress fills us in.

Lesley Manville as Helene Alvang in Richard Eyre's production of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts.
Lesley Manville as Helene Alving in Richard Eyre's production of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts.
(© Hugo Glendinning)

For an actor, having your work called "the performance of your life" is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's the most flattering compliment ever. On the other, it's a really hard thing to live up to night after night, especially when you're playing a role as intense as the conflicted widow Helene Alving in Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts.

And yet, with her name and those words popping up on advertisements across New York City, the British actress Lesley Manville is taking it all in stride. Known for her appearances in films like Topsy-Turvy and Another Year, Manville has an Olivier Award to show for her work in Richard Eyre's revival of Ghosts, which comes to Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theatre from April 5-May 3 after a pair of critically acclaimed runs in London.

As rehearsals began for the New York mounting, TheaterMania caught up with Manville to discuss how difficult it is to live up to such high expectations and how great word of mouth can help a little-production-that-could make it to the West End and beyond.

How intimidating is it to live up to something being called "the performance of your life"?
I don't find it intimidating at all. Listen, as long as a compliment is flowing, then I'm happy to take it. I'm not the kind of person who gets neurotic about things like that. I'm not reading them and thinking, How can I live up to that night after night? Surely some people, when there's that much publicity saying this is the performance of my career, are going to come and maybe disagree. But there's nothing I can do about that. It's a lovely pat on the back and I'm very, very happy.

When did you realize that this production was going to be more than your everyday revival of an Ibsen play?
I knew we were cooking up something good in the rehearsal room, but the success of the production is very much to do with the whole thing. It starts with a very brilliant adaptation by Richard Eyre. The language is quite archaic now. It can be a bit clunky and a bit dry, and he did a beautiful adaptation that made it possible for us to get to grips with it and make it very human and visceral and real. That was the first thing. Second, there are only five of us in it, but everyone is so strong. We created a fantastic relationship and indeed a fantastic dramatic ending, which I think leaves people pretty ready for a gin and tonic.

Lesley Manville as Helene Alving in Ghosts at the Almeida Theatre.
Lesley Manville as Helene Alving in Ghosts at the Almeida Theatre.
(© Hugo Glendinning)

What have you noticed about the play's relevance in today's world?
There are so many parallels with today. There's a line in the play when I start to reveal to the pastor how utterly dreadful [my character's] marriage was. I shatter his illusions about what he thought Helene's husband was like. I say, "My whole married life was a vile sham," and I could hear women in the audience intaking breath. Brutal, violent marriages and abused women and women who are pent up and suffering and haven't been allowed to be free, that is still, sadly, not news. There was Ibsen, a man, writing not only this amazing female role, but also Hedda Gabler and Nora in Doll's House. He had a very brilliant understanding, particularly with Nora and Helene, the suffocating nature of their lives.

It's no secret that the climate of Broadway is largely inhospitable to plays without celebrities. What is it like on London's West End?
In London, there certainly is a shift. There are a lot of serious straight plays happening in the West End. It's not just at the National or the Almeida or the Donmar. You can go to the West End now and you've got A View From the Bridge on, to name just one. There is a climate for having seriously plays in the West End that don't have movie stars in them.

Was a New York run always in the cards?
That's what we were all secretly hoping would happen. We just wanted to bring it to an audience we knew would be hungry to have it. It was fantastic to take it from the Almeida to the West End. We had the reviews to back it up, of course, but nevertheless, word of mouth got round that here was this phenomenal production of a play that people might have preconceived ideas about. It worked and people came to see it in droves. We did very well at the Oliviers, and not just me. We won Best Revival. It was one of those stars-aligned productions really, where things just came together.

Will Keen as Pastor Manders and Lesley Manville as Helene Alvang in Ghosts.
Will Keen as Pastor Manders and Lesley Manville as Helene Alving in Ghosts.
(© Hugo Glendinning)

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