October 17, 2008

Things that go bump in the mind


by Henrik Ibsen
Adaptation by Nicki Bloom

State Theatre Company of South Australia
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
October 13, 2008. Tickets: $21.70 – $51.70.
Bookings BASS 131 246
Until October 25.

In a letter, in June 1882, Henrik Ibsen declared – “I had to write Ghosts: I couldn’t stop at A Doll’s House: after Nora, I had to create Mrs Alving.” Ibsen, ever the probing questioner of received opinions, showed us Nora leaving her doll house before her adult life had properly begun, with the older Mrs Alving he examines a blighted life of misplaced duty, betrayed trust and inter-generational tragedy.

The ghosts in Ibsen’s play go bump, not in the night, but in the mind and brain . In her famous speech to Pastor Manders, Mrs Alving describes the ghosts as “all kinds of dead ideas, and all sorts of old and obsolete beliefs. They are not alive in us but remain in us nonetheless, and we can never rid ourselves of them.” These ghosts also take the sinister form of congenital syphilis, the “sins of the fathers” bestowed on her dying son Oswald, innocent victim of his father’s covert vice.

Transfering Ibsen’s bold and confronting plays from the 19th century to the present stage is always a challenge. Nora, the recent audacious modernization of A Doll’s House by Thomas Ostermeier for the Berlin Schaubuhne company made a strong impact at the 2006 Adelaide Festival. And with this State Theatre production, in similar vein, but with far more fidelity to the details of the text, director Geordie Brookman has made a very creditable job of keeping the themes and conflicts of the play vivid and current.

Nicki Bloom’s text, in many ways still discernibly close to translations such as Michael Meyer’s, has its deliberate anachronistic jolts with words like “up-front” and “media” (and I wonder whether Regina Engstrand’s F-word is more a stunt than a coup du theatre) but the move to directness and essentials is an admirable one. Victoria Lamb’s striking glass and iron set and apt costumes are also important for this sense of connection, blending the visual accents of Edvard Munch with the more gothic aspects of contemporary design. Dressing Manders, not as a stern Victorian cleric, but in the casual jeans and jacket of an outer suburban Australian evangelist, for instance, makes him a very believable purveyor of today’s ghosts.

The cast is evenly excellent – Alice Darling as the restless Regina, Brendan Rock convincingly insidious as Jakob, and Christopher Pitman as the confused, hypocritical and, ultimately, ruthless Manders. But it is Nathan O’Keefe’s tortured and desperate Oswald and the range and intelligence of Heather Mitchell’s outstanding portrayal of Mrs Alving which make Geordie Brookman’s intrepid production such an impressive success.

“Things that go bump in the mind” The Australian, October 17, 2008, p.10

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