October 01, 2011


by Henrik Ibsen
Adaptation by Nicki Bloom
State Theatre Company
Dunstan Playhouse
October 13

Of all of Ibsen’s plays Ghosts is the most startling and most intriguing. Written after A Doll’s House, it drew acrimony even from his admirers, sales of its first print run were disastrous, and theatre producers across Europe were fearful to stage it At the same time , young actors organised secret readings, attracting intense and defiant audiences eager to read a play prepared to challenge and discredit old authorities. In a letter in 1882, Ibsen exclaimed : ‘I had to write Ghosts: I couldn’t stop at A Doll’s House: after Nora, I had to create Mrs Alving.” In many ways, Nora’s story is yet to begin, or, at least, is not already written. But for Mrs Alving, a life of loyalty, trust and devout piety has led only to betrayal, humiliation and ruin -for her, and, even more, for her congenitally ill son, Oswald. Mrs Alving describes these ghosts: “it isn’t just what we have inherited from our father and mother that walks in us. It is all kinds of dead ideas and all sorts of old and obsolete beliefs. They are not alive in us; but they remain in us nonetheless, and we can never rid ourselves of them.”

When Mrs Alving reads about new ideas in books disapproved of by her supposed friend and confidante, Pastor Manders, he tries to intimidate her and, when misfortunes strike, he abandons her. Director Geordie Brookman and Nicki Bloom, who adapted the text, have done well in this State Theatre production to look for ways of bringing the ghosts of the late 19th century into the present.

Sometimes, mistakenly, Ibsen is seen as speaking only to his own time, a notion reinforced by dramatically unimaginative productions in period costume. But, as the Berlin Schaubuhne company showed with Nora in the 2006 Adelaide Festival, Ibsen’s plays still have vigour and currency. The invention of penicillin might save Oswald now, but it has not yet cured us of other ghosts, particularly those old and obsolete religious beliefs to which Mrs Alving refers obliquely. Designer Victoria Lamb’s iron and glass frame set with Baltic pine walkways and stodgy furnishings captures an interesting mix of Edvard Munch and a more modem stultification, while the costumes have echoes of 1960s pop-Victoriana DJ Tr!p adds a techno agitation to his disturbing soundscape and Mark Pennington’s lighting aptly reminds us of a darkening turn of events. Though not greatly altered from translators such as Michael Meyer, Nicki Bloom’s text is full of deliberate, jolting anachronism -slang, neologisms, remarks about life in the suburbs. Regina Engstrand even tells Mrs Alving to “fuck off.” But having displaced our complacency, it is Brookman and the actors’ attention to the central tensions of Ibsen’s play which makes this production memorable.

The performances are well-judged. Christopher Pitman’s Pastor Manders demonstrates, casually dressed in the jeans and jacket of an outer suburban TV evangelist, how bland platitude can mask the bigotry of doctrine. Brendan Rock’s obsequious deference as Jakob Engstrand sets the tone for his sinister machinations and Alice Darling’s Regina is unworldly and opportunistic. But it is Nathan O’Keefe as Oswald, full of bravado but imploding into dread and terminal decline, who convincingly embodies Ibsen’s tragedy. As does the excellent Heather Mitchell, as Mrs Alving, reduced to almost nothing, but resolute, even in the face of catastrophe, and determined to stare down ghosts – past, present, and to come.

“Ghosts”, The Adelaide Review, No.345, November, 2008, p.30.

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