Sunday, October 8, 2017


Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir St Theatre presents, Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Eamon Flack, from a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund, in the Upstairs Theatre. 20 September - 22 October.

Belvoir presents Henrik Ibsen's play, GHOSTS, in an adaptation by the Director Eamon Flack. It is an agile and careful, faithfully respectful version (unlike his recent production of THE ROVER), in which the actors, so the program notes tell us, were as participatory in its final language choices, based on a literal version of the play by Charlotte Barslund, as was the Director/Adaptor. It is presented in a one act, no interval one hour and forty-five minute sitting. This focused demand reminds us of the influence of the Greek play construct that was a part of the Ibsen ideal. The speedy vertiginous, no escape spiral to 'disaster' is an asset to the intentions of Ibsen for his audience.

Written in 1881 (following A DOLL'S HOUSE in 1879) the play is a social agenda work that heralded the movement towards what we have come to recognise as Realism, on our stages. It was a source of scandal when originally seen in the European capitals, having had its first production in Chicago in the United States in1882. The Daily Telegraph of London, in 1892, in response to a presentation:
Ibsen's positively abominable play GHOSTS ... An open drain ... a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly ... Gross almost putrid decorum. Literary carrion ... Crapulous stuff.
Indeed, it deals with religion, illegitimacy, sexually transmitted disease, incest, euthanasia and all the social (human) hypocrisies masking those subjects from the daylight of the sun's searching exposure.

The play concerns itself with a widow, Helene Alving (Pamela Rabe), on the eve of a triumph of 'social engineering' with the opening of a home for orphans to honour the memory of her husband. Her intellectual life has been liberated since her husband's death and she has become an avid, if timid, absorber of the contemporary literature discussing the role of women in society. Because of this she is at odds with her spiritual advisor and long friend, Pastor Manders (Robert Menzies), who is an exemplar of conventional values, of the deliberate social blindness that counsels no bending to the laws of nature, rather a Protestant adherence to the strictures of an archaic set of beliefs and behaviours for the sake of a civil society and one's heavenly reward. Mrs Alving's son Osvald (Tom Conroy) an artist, has just returned from Paris. He is unusually agitated and almost violent for the need to fulfill the demands of his biological urges and has settled his attentions/intentions on the servant/maid of the household, Regine (Taylor Ferguson), who has been rescued by his mother from the influence of her father, Jakob Engstrand (Colin Moody). There are, we will learn, 'skeletons in everyone's cupboards'.

Ibsen sets up a world of social conventions that on the surface is a role model of propriety. Mrs Alving has manipulated her circumstances to sustain that image. To do so she has lived a life, of deliberately hidden events, creating a construct of lies to hide the hypocrisies of her society and world. In the action of GHOSTS, like a Greek play (such as, OEDIPUS), at one step at a time, for Mrs Alving, the secrets are revealed, and her manipulated world is gradually but inexorably undermined and she is left bewildered and with an ultimate decision that will force her to an act of mercy (or not) at the cost of confronting the demands of her society.

William Shakespeare is the most performed playwright of contemporary times, Henrik Ibsen is the second most performed, and he has been just as influential on the writers that have followed, right up to today. Mr Flack's production, reveals the relevancy of GHOSTS, to our present world, as potently as it did in the time of its creation. The evolution of man is slow in its progress. The hypocrisies of our society just as active. The traditional English title of this play, GHOSTS, has never quite captured Ibsen's meaning, rather: THE REVENANTS - The One Who Returns, may be more resonant, for in this 2017 production, despite its 1881 heritage the sense of man repeating himself, of us seeing 'one who returns' is achingly piercing.

The Set Design by Michael Hankin, is fantastically atmospheric in its overwhelming 'greyness' of wood, rain and mist, lit with a bleakness in a colour palette of a stark and foreboding sterility shafted with narrow warmth from portable light fixtures until the break through of the Sun (and enlightenment?), from Nick Schlieper. The Costume Design by Julie Lynch is thoroughly calculated to inform the theme of the world of the play and demarcate character. The Composition and Sound Design by Stefan Gregory is spare but apt. It is a very handsome and intelligent production.

The storytelling is clear though one could wish for more of the 'thriller' dimension of the writing as reveal after reveal is given in unmasking the 'heaving underworld of uncertainty and double-vision' of the Alving world - the play can have the tension and shock of the Sophoclean Oedipus discoveries that could, similarly, hold one dramatically in a powerful grip. Too, one wishes that Mr Menzies/Eamon Flack could have relished more the mordant comedy, deliberate irony of Ibsen in the explication of the passionate but deluded Pastor Manders, in all his interactions with the others of the play - often, Ibsen's sense of wicked humour at the observation of the comedy of life and its players is not seen, or rather is ignored in production The irony is the essential element that inspired Chekhov in his admiration of Ibsen, which resulted in his more sophisticated and less agenda driven plays and short stories.

The intelligent objective knowledge that Ms Rabe has of the journey of Mrs Alving is spectacular, but one could wish that she would trust what she is experiencing and told us less - acted less, indicated less - gave us room to read more subtle clues so as to permit us to enter more imaginatively, and therefore, with more vulnerability, with her, into the pathetic plight of this 'good' woman. Mostly we are invited by Ms Rabe to watch Mrs Alving rather than 'live' with her - 'experience' the trials of her existence.

There is, on the other hand, in the work of Mr Conroy, particularly in the demanding Act Three of the play, a truly inhabited - lived - moment by moment truthfulness that transfigures the actor into the character and his needs, that convince us of Osvald's dilemma. He seems to almost combust - a kind of self-immolation - It is breathtakingly heartbreaking and confronting in its reality. He is matched, but with fewer opportunities by Taylor Ferguson, who, is allowing Regine to use those elements of herself - the actor - to create a persona on stage that is revealing a scorching truth of abuse and the human resilience to continue on, even if it is 'by hook or by crook'. One is tempted by the 'heat' of the creativity of these two actors to ask Is Osvald/Regine speaking, or is it Tom/Taylor that is speaking, experiencing with us. Both these actors are engaged in a contemporary style of acting that is one of self-exposure and sacrifice to the "God of Thespis".

This production is interesting for those of us interested in the development of acting in our times. All these performances on this stage, are what we can call, at least 'good', are of great integrity, but the styles at reaching the deserving of that epithet are historically different as amplified by the generational risks, techniques employed by the individual members of this company. Mr Moody and Ms Rabe are intelligent but hesitate to 'burn' themselves up for the character - they rather appear, to me, to choose, intellectually, and carefully (coolly) what they want - no more and no less, probably, each time, deliberately accurately. Whilst Mr Conroy and Ms Ferguson 'shoot' from a personal security of revealing self-truths, apparently 'recklessly', in each moment, that have come from a 'learnt' refinement of explored real truths in the repetition of rehearsal, that have, then, in performance an appearance of searing rawness, but which is coming from a rehearsed, secured body memory. Interestingly, Mr Menzies has a foot in both camps and switches from one to the other depending on with whom he is engaged with in each of his scene tasks.

It is fascinating to see the changing of the artistic 'baton/guard' to render good acting for the theatre.

Mrs Alving is, finally, confronted with the power of helping her loved one, her son, to an assisted death. She holds in her hands the 'tools' to do it. Euthanasia. What issue could be more pertinent for our society today as we all contemplate the slow creeping life of old age that removes the spirit and even consciousness of our personal loved ones - our parents, our relatives, ourselves. What will we do? Yes or no?

GHOSTS, at Belvoir, for many reasons, of both social relevance and art/craft observations, is worth catching.

In the published text and program of GHOSTS, there is no biographical information given to Henrik Ibsen. All the other artists except the originator of this enterprise The Writer is given space. Not a unique happening in Sydney Theatre, alas.

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