When Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts first arrived on stage in 1882, it disturbed audiences and critics, and was even banned in Europe as a result of its commentary on religion, the patriarchy and heredity.

Ghosts has returned to the stage in a new production by Eamon Flack at Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre. Does actor Tom Conroy expect it has the power to disturb contemporary audiences?

“I think so, I think there’s something very fundamentally unsettling at the core of the play,” he tells Theatre People.

“Nineteenth century etiquette would have been the source of a lot of the outrage, I think … things like talking about sexually-transmitted diseases and ideas of blasphemy and believing that God maybe doesn’t exist; of trying to reject the church’s influence over secular society. There are all sorts of things that, I think, would have been so much more controversial and were probably what a lot of those reviews were responding to at the time.

“But there are things that we still find confronting within the play that are to do with family and about the destructive nature of secrets within families and how that carries down through the generations … Incest and euthanasia come up in the play, and they’re two things which I find really fascinating looking at Ghosts. They’re two things that are still massive taboos within our society.”

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Tom Conroy in rehearsal for Ghosts (Photo by Brett Boardman)

Conroy comments on the theme of old world thinking clashing with modern ideas, which is also front and centre in Ghosts.

“That’s certainly something that feels very relevant at the moment in Australia, what with the marriage equality debate that’s going on,” he says. “There does seem to be a very present reminder that new ways of thinking are such a threat to more traditional understandings of society and the individual within us, and how those two things relate to one another.”

In Belvoir’s Ghosts (opening tonight) Conroy plays Oswald Alving, a talented artist who returns home from France to his mother (played by Pamela Rabe), who is determined to reveal to her son secret truths about his late father. Little does she know that Oswald is harbouring some important secrets of his own.

Conroy talks about the challenges he’s encountered in preparing to play the role.

“Oswald has just returned home the day before the play begins with a few secrets, and they’re to do with his health. I knew that I would have to really understand on a physical level what those symptoms are that get revealed as the play goes on,” he says.

“But also, beyond that, I really wanted to understand the psychology behind someone who is dealing with a very full-on disease and what that does to you, even psychologically. That hasn’t been an insurmountable challenge, but it’s certainly been something that’s kind of juicy for me to sink my teeth into through rehearsals.”

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Tom Conroy in rehearsal for Ghosts (Photo by Brett Boardman)

Conroy talks about how Flack, who has also been responsible for adapting the piece, is bringing Ibsen’s play to life for a contemporary audience.

“One of the great things about Eamon’s adaptation is that he’s still stuck true to the original setting of the play – we’re still setting it in a late nineteenth century-looking world [and] the language is not incredibly contemporary,” he says. “But what he has done is re-worked some of what Ibsen’s written, in order to make it more pointed for a contemporary audience. It feels very immediate and it’s a very potent adaptation of it. I think, in that way, it feels like the best way through for a contemporary audience to access the play.

He continues: “My feeling at this stage, is that what we’ve been doing in rehearsals is trying to ground each of the themes in a very truthful reality… Sometimes, you see in period pieces people playing some sort of false sense of how people related to one another, and there doesn’t seem to be a real, lived-in world that you’re watching. But that’s something that we’ve really tried to access through rehearsals and tried to find really rich and complex relationships between each of the characters.”

Flack has described Ibsen as “a treacherous writer to adapt” and revealed that in week three of rehearsals, he and the team continued examining the play’s translation and making minor changes to lines. Has Conroy found that process difficult?

“Not really, it’s actually been very liberating because I feel like from the very first read-through of the play that we did five weeks ago now and the discussion that we had immediately after we read it, it was very clear that we were all interested in similar things to do with the play and that we were all perplexed by certain parts,” he says. “There are certain things that I think Ibsen deliberately made opaque, in terms of immediate understanding of what exactly the characters are saying because a lot of these characters don’t say what they mean.

“One of the great things about having the adaptor in the room as the director is that we could continue to really analyse and try to mine through what someone was actually trying to say from moment to moment. That’s great really because it meant that when something didn’t feel right, we’d try to change the line slightly or make it more direct or more indirect. And then we would try that and sometimes, we would go back to the original … It made it feel very collaborative within the rehearsal room.”

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Taylor Ferguson in rehearsal for Ghosts (Photo by Brett Boardman)

Conroy has recently completed the critically-acclaimed national tour of 1984, in which he played the role of Winston. He discusses having the opportunity to be a part of bringing classic works to today’s theatregoers.

“I believe that it is important that we continue to look at classic texts, both from our recent history and our not-so-recent history,” he says. “I think by doing that, we understand who we are and where we’ve come from, and how much society has changed, and then maybe to reflect on the fact that maybe we haven’t changed as much as we think we have; that underneath our veneer of liberal contemporary society, there’s still a real struggle at play between old and new ways of thinking.”


GHOSTS
– SEASON DETAILS

Dates: Playing now until 22 October
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Tickets: belvoir.com.au or by phone on 02 9699 3444

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