Review: Ghosts ~ theatre notes

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Review: Ghosts

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Louis Nowra and May-Brit Akerholt, directed by Melanie Beddie. Design by Emily Barrie, lighting design by Richard Vabre, AV design Nicholas Verso, sound by Melanie Beddie. With Jay Bowen, Ming-Zhu Hii, Bruce Myles, Andrea Swifte and James Wardlaw. Branch Theatre Company @ Theatreworks until May 20.

Encountering Henrik Ibsen's plays is a little like reading James Joyce's Dubliners: you realise, with a blinding flash of revelation, where all that modern writing comes from. Here is the engaged social anger that led to Arthur Miller's masterpieces of political theatre (and to all the pilot fish that swim in his wake - on the Left, of course); here is the psychological accuracy, the insistence that we, as an audience, are watching something actually unfold before our eyes, that became the all-too-familiar "naturalism" that lies at the heart of so much 20th century theatre. And here, according to popular superstition, is the father of the "well-made play".

Oddly enough, to give Ibsen credit for his huge influence on contemporary drama is strangely to lessen him: his work is both stranger and more subversive than this picture allows. The image of the socially-engaged dramatic craftsman is largely due to Shaw's enthusiastic embrace of Ibsen, which has fatally coloured subsequent perception of his work. It is true, of course, but partial. Joyce, for example, was equally a passionate admirer, and his least successful work - his single play Exiles - bears the stamp of Ibsen writ large. Ibsen's psychological realism emerged more fruitfully in Joyce's exquisite suite of stories, Dubliners, and in the plays of Chekhov (which have a profound connection to Beckett); and the poetic of Peer Gynt and When We Dead Waken was one of the sources of both surrealism and expressionism. In fact, almost everywhere you look in 20th century writing it's possible to detect the faint marks of Ibsen's fingerprints.

Ibsen's agonistic relationship to poetry in theatre is well known - having begun with the verse plays Brand and Peer Gynt, he vocally rejected verse as the "enemy of theatre", and pioneered naturalistic prose dialogue in plays like A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler or The Master Builder. But it's a mistake to equate that decision with a rejection of poetic, and to think that it means that naturalism and poetry are mutually exclusive. Ibsen's poetic imagination is the engine that throbs beneath his prose, the deep source of its potency; and significantly, in his 70s he returned to verse bigtime with the symbolist drama When We Dead Waken, which features staging challenges worthy of Goethe's Faust.

In his day, Ibsen was hugely controversial. The London premiere of his 1881 play Ghosts, with its devastating attack on bourgeois hypocrisy and its themes of sexual degeneracy and disease, received reviews as scandalised as those which greeted Sarah Kane's Blasted. (Both were labelled "filth".) It's this radical, passionate Ibsen who is most often obscured by his reputation as a dull, stiff but worthy Norwegian whose "well-made plays" have provided justification for some of the dreariest theatrical writings of the past 50 years.

Such damping of the fire is, inevitably, part of the price of creating a heritage, of becoming a cog in the cultural machine: as Auden said of Yeats, "the words of the dead / Are modified in the guts of the living". One of the tasks of remounting the classics is to reignite the flame, to bring to contemporary life the radical soul of works that have been ossified into cultural monuments. Such a task is the stated aim of Branch Theatre Company's production of Ghosts: but sadly, it is a most frustrating experience. I left the theatre with my stomach in a knot, perhaps having caught something of the anxiety that seems to underlie almost every aspect of this production. Director Melanie Beddie ought to have had more faith in her man.

There is a strangely naive quality in this production, as if the notion that classic works can have purchase in present day society is a wholly new idea. The anxiety seems to lie in underscoring Ibsen's "relevance" by injecting the drama with a vaguely realised concept of contemporary theatricality. It seems unnecessary; the version of Ghosts used here, an adaptation by Louis Nowra and May-Brit Akerholt that remains respectful of the extant translations, gives the language a vernacular spin that does it no harm at all, and the play's themes remain as relevant now as they were in 19th century Europe.

Ghosts is the classic story of a shameful secret whose repression destroys everything that the secrecy was supposed to protect. The central obsessions of the play - its "ghosts" (or, more properly, its revenants, the dead walkers who return to the world of the living) - revolve around the clash between repressive middle class morality and Ibsen's idea of a truly moral life, in which people are freed of the personal lies and ideological blindnesses that trap and ultimately destroy them. Ibsen uses the central story of a son who inherits the venereal disease of his father to explore the corruption and hypocrisy that he perceived in the stifling mores of bourgeois ideology, and to icily examine the sexual repression that lies at the heart of patriarchal authority.

That Ibsen's plays are difficult to stage seems to me without question - aside from a great production of Peer Gynt featuring Robert Menzies that Anthill Theatre staged many years ago, I am yet to see him successfully performed. Ibsen's naturalistic prose presents steep challenges, demanding a depth of interpretation that is not present here. Like all great dramatists, his work is at once subtle and crude: the plot of Ghosts is melodramatic, the character lineation precisely and profoundly observed. This production seems to get lost between the large and the small, so that its chief quality comes across as uncertainty.

It's not unpromising: the company excavates enough of Ibsen's muscular, poetic intellect to permit you see within this show, like gems sparkling in the ore, a couple of potentially extraordinary performances. And Emily Barrie's striking design - an abstract stage-on-a-stage, with furniture wrapped in clear plastic to suggest an idea of prurient bourgeois hygiene - certainly offers a contemporary Ibsen. The frustration is that this promise is obscured by gestures towards an idea of theatricality that is nowhere explored in any depth.

The stage bustles with activity, but mostly to no good purpose, just as the eye-catching simplicity of the set is compromised by fussy details. And the production also features one of the most ill-thought soundscapes I've ever heard (at one point, I thought someone's mobile phone had gone off, before realising it was actually part of the play). Rather than stripping the play down to its bare emotional truths - the point, surely, of taking it out of 19th century museum-style naturalism - Beddie dresses it up with an extraordinary amount of stage business which seems to get in the way of, well, pretty much everything.

For example, there's a lot of action at the beginning of the play. While Ibsen gets down to business at once, with the maid Regina (Ming-Zhi Hii) barring her disreputable father Engstrand (Bruce Myles) at the door of the house, this production opens with a long prologue in which Regina enters with boxes and unloads them, takes off her boots, mops the floor, polishes a couple of glasses, and so on. Like much of the staging, these actions are sketchy, broadly illustrative rather than specifically meaningful. I found myself wishing that Regina would wash the floor, instead of impressionistically gliding a mop from one end of the stage to the other - I remembered a scene in Romeo Castellucci's Tragedia Endogonidia that consisted wholly of a woman mopping, an action executed with such concentration that this mundane task became absolutely riveting, a metaphor for all human labour.

More mystifyingly, as the prodigal son Osvald Alving, Jay Bowen spends a lot of time rootling about in a wardrobe that ingeniously opens out from a suitcase placed on the edge of the stage. At no point did I actually understand what he was doing, and I'm not sure the actor did either. He was merely filling the stage with movement, which seems the desired effect of much of the action. These examples may sound like carping, but they illustrate a problem that underlies much of the production: at issue is the question of what a gesture on a stage in fact might be. And my response is perhaps prompted by the absolutely spare psychological accuracy of Ibsen's dialogue, which creates a stark contrast to the fuss on stage.

Given this, it seems astounding that any of the actors manage to achieve anything at all. As Mrs Alving, the wife who has lived a loveless, hypocritical marriage for the sake of her son only to find that she has been an agent of his destruction, Andrea Swifte gives a felt and assured performance that at moments blossoms into the remarkable. And despite his burrowing in wardrobes, Jay Bowen's portrayal of Osvald becomes more and more compelling, culminating in a beautiful pas de deux with Swifte in the climactic moments of the play.

Others seem to be struggling. James Wardlaw seems to me miscast as Pastor Manders; he finds an accuracy that brings out the comedy of the priest's hypocrisy and small-mindedness, but at the same time misses the complexity and darkness of his crippled sexuality. Ming-Zhu Hii and Bruce Myles as the servants Regina and Angstrand appear to be playing them as if they're comic relief, the mechanicals of the show rather than integral parts of the central drama, which has the effect of displacing a crucial thread of the drama, and unwittingly reinforces the social divisions that Ibsen himself was questioning.

In short, Ghosts is, as I said, frustrating: a production that feels only half thought-through, teasingly threaded with glimpses of what might have been. One sighs for the missed opportunity. Branch Theatre Company is absolutely correct on one point: Ibsen is not done enough.


Nicholas Pickard said...

Alison, I am so glad that you brought up the sad point about heritage and reputation that gets in the way of Ibsen.
It happens all too often, and I concur that I have never really seen a production that hits the mark.

You mention the constant 'busy-ness' on stage. A response that I believe is based in a feeling of timidity to really tackle and deeply enter the text. I suspect that this timidity that appears to have afflicted this production is shared by most people who stage his texts.

Off the page, the setting, the words and characters leap out in the most beautiful way and when I pull out the dusty copy of Ibsen's collected works, I recall a deep affection for Ghosts above all of his plays. But the question still begs - how does one stage it??

And yes. He isn't done enough.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,

I saw a very interesting production of Ghosts (Gespenster) by Sebastian Nübling at the Schaubühne in Berlin this week.

Here is the link-

Along with Sarah Kane and Marius von Mayenburg, Ibsen is something of a "house" author at the Schaubühne. Thomas Ostermeier's version of Nora (A Doll's House) toured to Adelaide last year, and his version of Hedda Gabler is also travelling about.

Neither Ostermeier nor Nübling's productions suffer from "ossification". In very different manners, both find in Ibsen a radical contemporary writer whom they can use to criticise and x-ray this century's European bourgeoise.

Last week at the Schaubühne, I directed the German premiere of Debbie Tucker Green's play "Stoning Mary." She is, to my mind, with Churchill and Crimp, amoung the most provocative dramatists writing in English. Details of this can also be found on the Schaubühne website.

Very best,

Benedict Andrews

Anonymous said...

Gee Alison what a pity you missed the Classics Project that I did in 2000 - 2001 (?) in the Dandenongs & surrounds. We, that is, all the wonderful people of Chambers Theatre did the Dolls House, Ghosts (two productions), Hedda Gabler (two productions), The Father, Easter, Mrs Warren's Profession (two productions), Arms & the Man, Miss Julie, Hamlet, and Under Milk Wood. We did all of them a la Brook on a carpet (except for UMW - 23 people on chairs)) with minimal props & set. I used the Oxford versions for Ibsen & Hamlet. These shows toured round the Yarra Valley, Dandenong. Some made it to the Courthouse and others appeared in slightly more exotic locales (Frankston RSL - Mrs Warren, The Scandnavian club in Sth Melb: Miss Julie & Hedda (imagine those two going for a stroll up to St Kilda for a night out) Hamlet had a season at the Uniting Church in Sth Melb. We did UMW in a house hallway as well as more theatrical spaces. I'd never read any of these plays beforehand. My interest was to find out why these plays that appear regularly in op shops were once so popular and to create some employment for performers & me. We concentrated on showing the full story as clearly and simply as we could in everyday clothes that suggested character, but wouldn't look out of place strolling around Southland. In a word what we achieved was to make these amazing stories as accessible as possible, allowing the text speak for itself. It was very much an actors theatre.

Audiences in the Boonies were continually commenting to us their shock upon discovering that these stories were as "old" as they were . Even the somtimes slightly stilted language didn't bother them. They found themselves, like us, caught up & propelled into the story. I chose to do uncut versions because I believed that there is an assumption in the theatre community that we 'know' these Hedda's etc, when really we dont. You are right, Alison, to point to the complexity of Ghosts. These plays share a construction, like great paintings, that is paradoxically apparent and not. Its a shame when directors start to fiddle with them, It reminds me of what happened to Utzon's Opera House in Sydney. If you're going to fiddle at least fiddle with something an audience really knows, not assume they know.

I really hope that more Ibsen et al is done, they still speak clearly to us and its such pleasure to mingle in the experience of them - those authors were all commercial storytellers who knew, really knew, how to keep us in the experience if only we can let them.

This 'respect of the text' was an approach that I absorbed from JP Mignon when I fortunate enough to be part of his Checkhov Trilogy at Anthill in the mid 1980's.

I hope that among the versions and visions the occasional producton is faithfull to the original if only in order to be reminded (jolted?) of what 'universality' might mean.

So, aspiring directors - go to the op-shop, get a famous play by a dead author that you've never read and do all of it! See what happens. And find out what 'all' might mean.

howard stanley
bermagui NSW

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Nicholas, Benedict and Howard - thanks for your most interesting responses. And thanks too for the pointer to the Schaubuhne, Benedict - what an interesting program - Miller, Ibsen, Kane... I've never even heard of Debbie Tucker Green, and from my brief googling she looks fascinating. And Howard, great to see you here - that's a formidable program! I wish it hadn't been in my blank theatre period...Strindberg's another playwright I'd love to see.

George Hunka said...

Well, Ibsen has always been misunderstood -- we remember him best (and he has the strongest reputation for) his early "realistic" prose dramas (of which "Ghosts" and "A Doll's House" are two), whereas his later work, from "The Master Builder" on, really points the way to modernist theatre. When Ibsen is produced, it's always these early plays -- but "The Lady of the Sea" and "Rosmersholm" and "Little Eyolf" are far more interesting to me because they do revive the lyricism of "Peer Gynt" and "Brand" in that quasi-realistic style. And they're much more open-ended than we'd expect from his reputation as the architect of the "well-made" play (a reputation really more appropriate for Sardou and Pinero than Ibsen, anyway).