Some works for the stage have a remarkably short shelf life; their initially incisive commentary on the issues of the day fails to resonate with audiences even a decade later. But then there are those that, despite their focus on societies far removed from our own in eras long since passed, have meaning centuries after their creation.
Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts falls into the latter category. Written by the Norwegian playwright in 1881 (and adapted for Belvoir by director Eamon Flack), it tells the story of Helene Alving (Pamela Rabe), an affluent widow living on a country estate in western Norway with her maid, Regine (Taylor Ferguson). Mrs Alving has built an orphanage that is to be named after her late husband, who was regarded as a man of great distinction. Her friend, Pastor Manders (Robert Menzies), arrives at her home on the day before the dedication ceremony – the 10th anniversary of Captain Alving’s death.
Shortly before Manders’ arrival, Mrs Alving’s young adult son, Osvald (Tom Conroy), returns home from France, where he was living as an artist. Sent away at seven years of age, it’s been a long time since Osvald has occupied his parents’ home and, in returning, he has a devastating secret to reveal to his mother.
But Mrs Alving, too, is weighed down by secrets about her late husband, and she’s resolved that redemption will come from revealing the truth to Osvald about his father – that despite his revered status in the local community, Mr Alving was abusive to her, alcoholic, and regularly engaged in infidelity (it was because of this that Mrs Alving sent Osvald to live away from home).
Before Mrs Alving shares the truth with Osvald, she tells Manders the whole story. The pastor’s response is far from the concern and compassion one should rightly expect from their spiritual counsellor. However, Mrs Alving is undeterred from her task to tell her son who and what his father was, and to attempt to secure for him a freer and happier life than her own, unshackled by the sins of the past.
Ibsen’s Ghosts is a magnificent text highlighting the eternal clash between convention and new ways of thinking, and the steadfast attempts by some to cling onto parochial values that scream to be challenged. It canvasses the battle between the religious and the secular, personal freedom and familial responsibility, as well as alcoholism, domestic violence, venereal disease, incest, and euthanasia. It asks why tradition and custom should be favoured over a different course of action, where no logical argument for doing so can be made.
Flack’s barely-tweaked version of Ibsen’s text is faithful but ensures complete clarity throughout. Coupled with expert direction, he’s crafted a tremendous production. Michael Hankin’s set vividly brings to life the nineteenth century country home that is at once a picture of beauty and yet so patently haunted by ghosts of the past. That’s assisted by outstanding work by Nick Schlieper, who mirrors the temperature of each scene seamlessly with his lighting choices – most changes occur so subtly that you barely notice. Meanwhile, Julie Lynch’s costumes reflect the tight-laced nature of the period beautifully.
Flack has also assembled a brilliant cast, led by the incomparable Rabe as Mrs Alving. In one of the finest performances of the year, her portrayal of the widow is enormously sympathetic. This is a caring, protective but free-thinking and accomplished woman of integrity, forced into circumstances removed from her control. Her pain is palpable, as is her smothered potential. Similarly, her depiction of a woman unwavering in her efforts to salvage her son’s life is heartbreaking.
Menzies is excellent as the pious pastor, who is idealistic, highly judgmental, and sanctimonious – a manifestation of those who insist on action for the sake of duty, not happiness. He’s particularly impressive during his most substantial exchange with Mrs Alving, in which she confides in him the truth about her husband and the state of her marriage. As Osvald, the ultimately doomed son, Conroy succeeds in his portrayal of a man initially so aware of “the joy of life”, who becomes gripped with fear as he faces the prospect of his inevitable decline. As Regine, Ferguson is another great asset to this production, while Colin Moody’s portrayal of Jakob Engstrand is a successful depiction of the opportunistic carpenter.
Belvoir’s Ghosts offers audiences a compelling, challenging and thought-provoking presentation 135 years after the first performance of Ibsen’s text. With a production that is first class across the board, it advocates the continued railing against the status quo, that we must always question conventions that simply represent how things have been done before. We cannot live as though we’re the ghosts of those who came before us; we must live lives that make sense of today. Ibsen’s message is timeless and so wondefully articulated here.
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